In 1997, 18 years of the systematic dismantling of trade union rights, the abolition of wage councils and widespread low pay at the hands of the Tory government had left many struggling with inadequate wages, childcare responsibilities and humiliation in the workplace. For young women and single parents, the situation was especially bleak.
Thirteen years later, when Labour left office a series of reforms had together made a big difference. There were initiatives that consciously sought to improve the situation of women at work – tax credits, the extension of free childcare, Sure Start centres and maternity and paternity leave. But additionally, there was wider action on rights at work, signing up to the European Social Chapter, moves to tackle abuse of agency contracts and resources put into enforcement.
The immediate priority was to deal with youth unemployment which stood at 250,000. Later the introduction of the minimum wage raised the wages of 1 million low-paid workers overnight, 70 per cent of them women. It is easy to forget how important these reforms were for women who were, and remain, disproportionately concentrated in insecure and low-paid work.
But Labour also came to power determined to shake off a long-held reputation for poor economic governance and an anti-business approach. This context was in part responsible for the reluctance to tackle emerging trends like the growing casualisation of the workforce in the interests of employers. This had profound social and economic consequences for families across the country, affecting women in particular.
Labour needs a wider vision for work to understand that many people who work in the private sector also offer a public service and we should celebrate, support and nurture the opportunities for people to find meaning in work wherever it exists.
Huge challenges remain. Women are three times more likely to work part-time, and much more likely to end up in certain professions: administrative and secretarial employment, social care, leisure and customer service sectors – which continue to be broadly low-paid. It is estimated that by 2020, the number of people on zero-hours contracts will stand at 1 million: many of them women. This shift is impossible to ignore, especially as women still take on the bulk of caring responsibilities.
Young women apprentices are paid less, receive fewer training opportunities and are more likely to be unemployed upon completion than their male counterparts. They are hugely over-represented in health and social care, while young men are more likely to take apprenticeships in information technology, engineering and construction. These industries tend to offer higher pay and better progression routes.
There are a number of ways Labour can begin to address this. They include raising the pay in sectors like social care where women predominate and are especially poorly paid; extending the ability of workers in those sectors to set up co-ops thus sharing a greater proportion of the rewards; introducing quotas for apprenticeships and reintroducing proper careers advice, mentoring schemes and programmes like Aim Higher that were abolished by the coalition. The most radical, and important of these reforms would be to seize the opportunity almost grasped by the Labour government and introduce a system of academic and vocational qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds as recommended by Mike Tomlinson’s working group back in 2004.
This would be a system fit for the future. We know that maths and science will be increasingly important for future jobs. We also know that automation is likely to change the jobs market significantly with a core of jobs in areas like customer service continuing to be done by humans, potentially increasingly low-paid and lacking in career progression.
In this context, we need a new vision of work as something that doesn’t just build the economy but enables us to live richer, larger, more meaningful lives. Labour’s explicit aim must be to give people the ability to make their own choices based on their own priorities of family, work, and income. This means improving workers’ rights, at a time when we are withdrawing from the European Union, the source of whatever progress was made during our last period in opposition. The hard Brexit being pursued by the Tories carries a real risk of comprehensive deregulation of our labour markets.
We also need to argue for investing in skills, reforming the education system and rebuilding the middle tier of jobs so people no longer get stuck in low-paid jobs with limited prospects. We should pursue an economic policy based on inclusive growth so we share equally in the proceeds and don’t have to leave the welfare state to do so much heavy lifting, pitting the working and middle classes against one another and leaving us all poorer. A system that works in the interests of labour not capital would change women’s lives, and in doing so build us a stronger, fairer, happier country.
Lisa Nandy MP has written a contribution for the new Fabian Society book This Woman Can: 1997, women and Labour published today.