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Spending Review 2015: The economy should be the next big feminist issue

Challenging permanent austerity must be a feminist cause; the results of not doing so are already playing out in the lives of the poorest women.

Last month, while the plan to cut tax credits was being passionately opposed, the women’s charity Eaves quietly closed after nearly 40 years of service. In its final years Eaves witnessed and sought to alleviate the pain when the burden of similar cuts fell on people in hard times. The charity supported women escaping domestic violence and victims of trafficking; it helped women left vulnerable by cuts to legal aid and uncertain immigration status; it was a rare haven for women made destitute by benefit sanctions and at risk of homelessness. Now it’s gone but the women remain.

Women like Leila.

When Leila moved onto a small estate of low square red-brick flats in West London she took a few chairs and a shisha pipe, and sat outside in the communal car park and yard. She loved to smoke and she loved talk to people. And now free of her husband, she could do both without the fear of violence.

Leila’s new neighbours were drawn to the petite mother of two. Originally from Sudan, quick to laugh and chatty, she seemed one of them, a Londoner escaping the confines of a pokey flat and making a garden wherever space allowed. But in truth Leila had arrived in the capital in 2007 with her husband, a British citizen who convinced her that London would be better than Sudan.

She wanted to study (in Sudan she was a teacher), but couldn’t on the temporary visa he’d secured for her. Then she became pregnant. The dream of continuing education retreated further when he lost his job. When he started taunting, kicking, punching, the Leila she had been disappeared.

One night he tried to smother her face with a pillow, after that she was certain he might eventually kill her. Leila escaped and stayed with her two young sons in a refuge for one year. Without a refuge Leila and her children would have had nowhere to go, and she most likely would have ended up in Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

But up and down the country domestic violence refuges are closing at an alarming rate. Many are reliant on diminishing local authority budgets, which will likely be pared back even further in the Autumn Spending Review. Councils commission more general domestic violence services, which are cheaper, forcing specialist providers to do more for less or lose contracts.

The threat of violence at home has lessened for Leila, but the restrictions of her gender and immigration status confound her ability to provide a better life for herself and the boys. The Home Office has granted her just three years leave to remain in the UK with her British children (after initially refusing her application). She’d still like to study but can’t afford the fees and doesn’t qualify for student loans. She earns minimum wage as an admin assistant at a higher education college but can only work part-time because she needs to collect her sons from school at half 3 every day. Then she must find an extra £70 each week to cover the shortfall left by the benefit cap. Like women across the UK, Leila will pay even more back to the government when the housing benefit cap falls next April and child tax credits are cut.

Leila’s predicament, the closure of Eaves and the cuts to tax credits are part of a wider political narrative, plotted behind the closed doors of the Treasury. For the last five years the government has set about achieving a budget surplus, and rolled back state services to that end. But the miniscule growth achieved has come at the expense of women, who are more likely to rely on public services, receive social security and work in the public sector. By cutting precisely these areas and freezing public sector wages the government has pummeled women’s security and financial independence. They are the women Eaves once helped and they are the women on the frontlines of this decade’s battle for gender equality.

A new report by the LSE’s Commission on Gender, Inequality and Power unpacks what’s happening. The commission questions the character of inequality and analyses power imbalances between men and women across the economy, the law, politics and media. Its findings are based on evidence from academic experts, public and private sector professionals, civil servants and politicians. For anyone interested in challenging austerity, the section on the economy is useful ammunition.

Much you may already know. That 78 per cent of the cuts to welfare are paid for by women. That women account for 65 per cent of public sector employees, where wage increases will be frozen at 1 per cent for the next four years. That there are 93,000 more young women Not in Employment, Education or Training than young men.

That the gender gap is complex and can be measured in different ways to account for social groups, regional or national levels of pay, and scales of pay within professions. That the most commonly used measure, the full-time median hourly pay at a national level for workers aged 16-64, is not quite reflective of women’s true position in employment. Women make up just 36.7 per cent of full time workers and 73.9 per cent of all part time workers. Taking full and part time employment together the gender pay gap is 19.1 per cent, the sixth highest in the European Union. Then there’s the fact that the reason for the decline in the gender pay gap is related to men’s wages falling rather than women’s pay rising.

At this rate it will take 50 years to eliminate the gender pay gap for full time workers and 300 years for female part time workers.

As women get older it gets worse; a gender pay gap in pension entitlements means women are more at risk of poverty in old age than men. Black and brown women even more so. Women make up 65 per cent of pensioners at risk of poverty.

Raise children alone and you are also more likely to be poor; 43 per cent of lone parents are at risk of poverty. At risk of poverty means your income is less than 60 per cent of the median income. Throw ethnicity into the mix and the likelihood of poverty increases dramatically. The following stats are from a 2010 report. The number of white women living in poverty (16.7 per cent) is slightly higher than the number of white men (14.1 per cent); for Chinese women it’s even higher at 20.6 per cent and higher still for black African women (22.7 per cent), Indian women (23 per cent) and black Caribbean women (23.5 per cent). The poverty rate for Pakistani women is 46 per cent and for Bangladeshi women 51.9 per cent.

Which is why even if George Osborne backs down or “fudges” his tax credit cuts, the battle isn’t yet won. For the extra £12bn in planned social welfare cuts will come from somewhere. This is why challenging this permanent austerity must be a feminist cause; the results of not doing so are already playing out in the lives of the poorest women.

Read the LSE's report, Confronting Gender Inequality.

Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi reports and writes on immigration, women and economics, housing, legal aid, and mental health. Read her latest work here. Her blog rebeccaomonira.com was shortlisted for the 2012 Orwell Prize. She tweets @Rebecca_Omonira.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.