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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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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum