Women are disproportionately affected by squeezed state provision. Photo: Getty
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Austerity is a feminist issue – women will be hit twice as hard as men by cuts

The latest Budget measures give a painful insight into the relationship between the UK’s austerity experiment and women.

Buried amid coverage of last week’s Budget was a telling statistic: women will be hit twice as hard as men by Osborne’s chosen measures. According to House of Commons research commissioned by Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper, direct taxes and social security cuts will take £9.6bn net a year from families – £7bn of which is from women.

The media largely had more important things to focus on. The Sun, for one, was busy superimposing George Osborne’s head onto a six-pack.

From the coalition to their first majority Budget, the Conservatives have orchestrated policies that have wildly, disproportionately hit women: from cuts to tax credits to caps on and cuts to benefits, and pay cuts in real terms. Scan most coverage – either given to feminist campaigns or economic analysis of the cuts – and we would hardly know it.  

But to discuss austerity with "gender blindness" is to ignore what is actually happening. Mothers skipping meals to feed their kids. Women queuing at food banks for sanitary towels. Carers – 72 per cent of whom (receiving Carer’s Allowance) are women – struggling to look after disabled family in poverty.

We are witnessing an economic and cultural assault on women.

As the Fawcett Society put it to me – before we even include the latest round of measures – 85 per cent of all the cuts have been at the expense of women, according to calculations by the House of Commons Library.

“Whilst women are more dependent on public spending than men and would therefore be more sensitive to cuts regardless, the strategy chosen by the government has also hit services women are particularly reliant on,” they added.

Social care has already been cut by 23.4 per cent over the past five years, according to the Women’s Budget Group. Social housing by 33.8 per cent. Early years education and childcare has been cut by 19 per cent. There is a reason this slicing of local government services have been dubbed a "death by a thousand cuts".

Women, similarly to disabled people – many of whom, as obvious as it is to state, will also be women – tend to be reliant on multiple public services. They are also primary caregivers and often the lowest earners.

It would not take advanced thinking to grasp that taking a hatchet to state support would disproportionately hurt women. Indeed, as recently as May, a group of 11 women’s rights charities, including Women’s Aid, the Fawcett Society, and Rape Crisis, were warning that very thing.

If you impose an ideological project to simultaneously cut public services and benefits, then it is women – particularly marginalised women, such as single mothers or those in poverty (again, not typically binary groups) – who will find their living conditions worsening.

Listen to the recent rhetoric around benefits and you would be forgiven for thinking this was intentional. The recession provided not only a long-term economic excuse to dismantle state support but, increasingly, a moral one. Look close enough and this is often framed in a gendered way. Women are not only now part of "dependency culture" but, as mothers of future "welfare dependents", are reproducers of it. Less beautiful family, more irresponsible leaches. As Dawn Foster put it in a discussion on working class feminism: the middle class “have children”, whereas the working class “breed”.

The new Budget brought in two cuts that further this agenda: the benefit cap, which cut the amount in benefits families can receive further to £20,000 (£23,000 in Greater London); and the limiting of child tax credits to two children (for those born after April 2017). Both share a message for women who have the audacity to have multiple children while being working class.

It's telling that, in an anti-benefit climate so hysterical the Labour party is currently considering abstaining over the Welfare Bill rather than voting against it, Osborne is barely trying to hide this. As he announced the latest cuts, the Chancellor knew he could be explicit: the social security system “should not support lifestyles and rents that are not available to the taxpayers who pay for that system”.

The punishment for the "lifestyle choice" of structural inequality – a gendered and class-based pay gap, high-cost childcare, on top of high rents – is watching your children be pushed into poverty.

It gives some insight into where we currently are that the Department for Work and Pensions will develop "protections" for women applying for tax credits who "have a third child as a result of rape". It is unclear what evidence a rape victim will have to provide the government to receive her benefits.

Osborne is actually set to claim this week that women are key winners from his choices. Specifically, that they will make up two-thirds of those who will benefit from the new so-called national living wage, according to Treasury analysis. That shows quite some nerve considering these calculations don’t take into account the money he’ll remove from the same women through cutting tax credits.

In fact, a low-earning single parent – usually women – working 20 hours a week at £9.35 an hour to support one child will be £1,000 a year worse off by the end of this Parliament, the Resolution Foundation calculated last week.

These latest austerity measures highlight the class dimension of a long-standing wider feminist concern: "benefit claimant mothers" can be vilified while the same government makes it harder for women to stay in or find work.

As Giselle Cory, senior research and policy analyst at IPPR, pointed out on the Staggers, the latest Budget does a good job of exacerbating the gender inequality set out in the DWP’s flagship benefit system, Universal Credit: poor incentives for the lowest earner in a couple – namely, low-income women – to go out to work.

It’s being made no easier for single parents (again, usually women). Under Universal Credit, parents – including lone ones – will be required to return to work when their child turns three and "prepare for work" by training or having interviews when their youngest turns two.

It says something of the "no win" position in which the Conservatives are putting low-income mothers that, as they are being pushed into work, the government is excluding them from the latest extension of free childcare (only three and four year olds in "working families" – not jobseekers – will be eligible).

It would be easy to feel a sense of defeatism at this point. But women – from Focus E15, the young mothers who occupied an empty block of council houses in Newham, east London for the right to social housing, to carers protesting disability cuts – are at the centre of the fight back.

Just as economic analysis has routinely shut out female experiences, a cultural version of "woman problems" – from body image to representation – is often pushed to the forefront as our economic inequality is sidelined. But the latest Budget confirms what the past five years has been quietly screaming. Austerity is a feminist issue.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser