A ludicrous article written by the Prime Minister in the Guardian on Monday, claiming that “the Conservatives have become the party of equality,” is so far-fetched as to appear to be a bad April Fools’ joke come early. David Cameron’s particular brand of Conservatism, implemented with even greater verve and vigour since May this year, has created the most unequal society I have seen in my lifetime. And yet his outlandish assertions seem to have been allowed to pass under the radar with little more than a whisper of discontent.
The Prime Minister’s self-congratulation stems from the thin claim that it is the Conservatives who are pushing for better protections and fairer treatment for aspiring young people from black and ethnic minority communities, for same-sex couples and for Muslims vulnerable to Islamophobic attacks. Yet it is entirely misleading to suggest that such measures are in any way novelty or can be claimed as the Conservatives’ own, and as a Labour Member of the European Parliament, I not prepared to let them get away with it. It was core equality legislation introduced by the European Union in 1999 which for the first time gave the European community a specific and legal base upon which to take “appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.” And it is these very communities that have been hit hardest by coalition and Conservative government action since 2010.
Nor, as a political representative of the North East of England, am I prepared to stay silent over the glaring omissions in the Prime Minister’s definition of equality, over his failure whatsoever to mention the economic disparity in the UK that has accelerated at an alarmingly rapid rate under his leadership. My constituency has been disproportionately hit by austerity measures implemented since 2010, ranking highest in terms of poverty, long-term unemployment and young people out of work, and where a further 2,200 jobs are to be lost following the devastating closure of Redcar’s steel plant. These people need a voice, and it’s my job to ensure that voice is heard.
Before dealing with the holes in the Prime Minister’s equality manifesto, it would be helpful to begin by unpicking some of the policies he proudly holds up as evidence of this new brand of “compassionate” Conservatism. First to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, which has allowed more than 15,000 same-sex couples to tie the knot since its implementation in 2013. A victory for the LGBT community, certainly, and one which should be celebrated as one of the greatest achievements for equality and progressive politics in the past century. But no Tory victory.
Perhaps unsurprisingly from the only party not to have gone into the 2010 general election with a single policy on gay rights, whose leader in 2003 voted against the repeal of Section 28, the Conservative wing of the coalition government showed that they wanted as little to do with the Marriage Bill as was humanely possible, leaving it to their Liberal Democrat colleagues to take the lead in announcing its planned implementation. Handed a free vote by David Cameron, more Conservative MPs voted against the legislation than for it. So far, so unimpressive.
What about David Cameron’s decision to place racially motivated crimes against Muslims on a par with anti-Semitism? Racism and hate crimes against ethnic and religious minorities are on the rapid rise in the UK, with Islamophobic attacks in London up by 70 per cent in the 12 months leading up to July: any move to tackle such heinous crimes head-on would be laudable if it didn’t come from a man whose government has actively stoked the fires of frenzied tabloid scaremongering as Europe faces its biggest refugee crisis since the second world war. “Go home or face arrest” vans, razor wire in Calais and warnings of swarms of marauding migrants flooding our shores demonstrates a party much more content to snuggle up with far right forces than to attempt in any meaningful way to tackle racial and religious prejudice.
On seeking equality for women Cameron’s article is pretty thin, merely stating his party will force company directors to publish data on wage disparity between their male and female employees. That’s probably because this government has done more damage to women than any that has preceded it. Whereas the EU has since its inception been fighting to establish equality in the workplace and close the gender pay-gap, the Age of Austerity under David Cameron and his majority male cabinet has seen a series of brutal attacks launched on the female British population on a scale never before seen. According to calculations by the House of Commons Library, 85 per cent of all cuts have been at the expense of women – and that’s even before we consider the latest round of planned measures. Women, as primary caregivers and often the lowest earners in society, tend to rely on multiple public services: when social housing, early years education and tax credits are cut, it is women who suffer most. Even worse, the reduction of state funding for women’s refuges to its barest bones and a commitment to the outsourcing of local provision for vulnerable women has left these key services struggling to survive, with several being forced to close since 2010.
Indeed, it’s the complete and utter failure to include any mention of cuts that make the Prime Minister’s assertions about his party’s equality credentials are so terrifying. That he published his article on the eve of a House of Lords vote on the future of tax credits for working families is a brazen act of shameless duplicity. George Osborne’s plan to slash this support is an unabashed assault on the working poor in our society: escalating rents and the meteoric rise of zero-hours contracts in the UK mean that tax credits for many are the lifeline that ensures they have enough money to feed, clothe and heat themselves and their children. If implemented, it is estimated that three million lower-paid household will lose on average £1,350 per year, plunging 200,000 children into poverty in 2016.
Tax credits are simply the latest in a line of austerity measures that have forced women, the young, the poor and the disabled to shoulder the burden of a crisis not of their making. We are living in an age where “fiscal discipline” means tax cuts to heirs, corporations and high earners, while the sick and disabled are declared fit for work and threatened with a 30 per cent in their weekly benefits. Where young people must pay £9,000 per year to go to university in order to prepare for a 20s spent at home navigating the world of Job Seeker’s Allowance, zero-hours contracts and unpaid internships. Where food bank use has tripled and the number of people sleeping rough has risen by 55% since 2010. Where the poor die on average seven years younger and become disabled 17 years earlier than their richer neighbours.
The government’s planned cuts to tax credits were delayed on Monday in the House of Lords, but they were not defeated. And with a further £7.6 billion worth of welfare cuts still in the pipeline, the worst is surely yet to come – this in the only G7 country already with wider inequality than at the turn of the century. David Cameron’s claim that his is the party of equality is based on a paucity of evidence at best and sheer deception at worst, conveniently ignoring any consideration for the people who have been so brutally hit by his five years of leadership. Such a claim would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.