Yesterday, Claire Perry attempted to make a robust defence of David Cameron’s record on women after reports that Labour has a 13-point lead among them. What she failed to recognise was the reason why women are turning away from the Conservatives in droves. When women are being made to bear the brunt of deficit reduction, with three quarters of the burden coming from the purse rather than the wallet, they are going to be angry.
And the frustrating point is not just the excuse that the House of Commons is “like a boys’ public school”. But that Perry glosses over the problem that she and other Conservatives face when talking about women and politics – that they have actually voted for the specific choices Cameron and Osborne have made which hit women’s lives the hardest.
I am not sure I agree the House of Commons is always like a boys’ public school any more (although some elements still exist) but I would agree
that the Conservative Party is, considerably more at least than the Labour Party. The Conservatives did see an increase in their intake of
women at the last election, but still only 16% of Tory MPs are women. Labour currently has 34% women MPs and has increased the number of women
in Parliament through training and education processes, alongside positive action measures as part of a serious strategy to reach 50%
women in the Parliamentary Labour Party. In the shadow cabinet, women have achieved 45% representation – one of the clear reasons why their experience and needs remain high on Labour’s political agenda. This contrasts with Cameron who last year sacked 0% of the men and 60% of the women in his cabinet, leaving just four women out of a cabinet of 25, and five departmental teams, including the Treasury, without a single woman.
The National Labour Women’s Conference last Saturday at the start of Labour conference saw over 1,000 women join for an outstanding day of
policy debate and challenge. The numbers of women attending the Women’s Conference has continued to rise – from 300 in 2010 to 1,000 this year.
Not only did the day put everyday sexism firmly on the political agenda, reinforced by Ed Miliband’s leader’s speech, but it comprised powerful debates about tackling domestic violence, childcare, women’s jobs and income, equality in the workplace, women’s representation in politics and the needs of older women.
What was particularly striking to me as someone who organised much of the first Women’s Conference, and who chaired the final session this
year, was the range of women present. They were of all ages, all backgrounds. There were a significant number of women new to Labour and
to politics who have found a space in which they feel at home and can raise issues that they and women, like them, face. It is the most significant space in British politics now connecting the needs of women with politics and the processes of power, rather than only the process of protest. What the conference marked is that Labour is the party giving political expression to the new wave of feminism that is on the rise.
Yvette Cooper’s speech made the case that the Tories’ problem with women is not just historical with decisions made three years ago, but is ongoing.
Indeed, David Cameron even enforced this point at the weekend by announcing the Tories’ new marriage tax allowance. The allowance will not benefit working mums, will actually penalise mothers for going back to work, or increasing their hours as a child gets older, and, according to the House of Commons Library, will be paid to men in five out of six cases. Paid to the man on his third wife, but not to the ex-wife he left behind looking after the children. Paid to the man with the ring on his finger, but not to the single parent working hard to make ends meet. That’s the Tories for you – out of touch, and out of date.
The progress of women – politically, economically and socially – has to be a clear priority integrated into mainstream policy debates for all parties – how women are affected shouldn’t be an afterthought in our national decision making. The Tories need to realise that their problem with women is not a failing of spin, but a failing of substance and policy on which Labour will continue to hold them to account in the House of Commons, in their constituencies and on social media.
Seema Malhotra is Labour MP for Feltham and Heston and PPS to Yvette Cooper (Equalities)