As we approach International Woman’s Day, JUST West Yorkshire and the Racial Justice Network spoke to Kate Green (KG), shadow spokesperson for Women and Equalities, and Rebecca Taylor (RT), Liberal Democrat MEP about the challenges facing women in the North of England.
Question: How would you assess the challenges facing women in the North, particularly those who are vulnerable, poor and marginalized in the current political and economic environment?
KG: Economic inequality between the North and the South is not being helped by austerity and by having very high levels of unemployment and economic disadvantage in the North. Some of the poorest parts of the country lie in the North and local authority spending cuts in those areas are very high. This always impacts more on women because women are the family shock absorbers. It is also women who make more use of public services, which they access ontheir own behalf as well as on behalf of family members.
Public sector cuts will have an adverse impact on women as they are more likely to be employed by that sector which will negatively affect employment equality. Going down a layer, women who might have a disability, women of minority ethnic backgrounds and so on are hit very hard by the government. A lot of the specialist services are losing funding and are closing. The cuts in disability benefits will disproportionately affect certain women, older women, women in minority communities where there is a prevalence of a particular medical condition – so there are all sorts of dimensions where the disadvantages can be manifold because of the cuts.
Question: How does the composition of our current cabinet impact on the way in which policy and services for women are configured?
KG: The government is dismantling the equalities infrastructure and that will have an inevitable and extremely damaging affect on gender equality. It is really important that you have strong equalities bodies; that you have a strong equalities infrastructure, that you have equality impact mainstreamed into all policymaking and service delivery. But good authorities will not be affected by this and will continue to mainstream the equalities agenda.
RT: I would agree that Westminster MPs are not sufficiently representative of the population as a whole, particularly when it comes to women, ethnic minorities and people from different social backgrounds.
Question: Do you think there is a blind spot in the current government’s approach to austerity in relation to women?
KG: The absence of a growth strategy and an investment strategy is the first critique we make of the government’s austerity policies and there appears to be no gender impact analysis of that policy at all. Otherwise, they would be paying more attention to what could be done to tackle cuts at the top because people who are rich tend to be men, and less through services and benefits cuts at the bottom which as we know disproportionately affect women.
Question: Do you accept the charge that female politicians across the political divide have failed to adequately advocate for women because they have put party political interests above the plight of women?
KG: I totally disagree with you. Our whole economic analysis has been framed in terms of cuts hitting women 3 times as hard as men. We talk repeatedly about the family budget of the squeezed middle, and we know that women are the managers of those family budgets. We talk a lot about childcare, social care, the sort of roles women perform trying to balance work and caring. We launched our Women’s Safety Commission; we are calling for a Women’s Justice and Safety Board.
RT: Due to the current first past the post electoral system for Westminster, it is virtually impossible – with notable exceptions e.g. Martin Bell – for anyone to be elected when they do not belong to a mainstream political party. Liberal Democrats are committed to electoral reform, but unfortunately, neither the Labour nor Conservative parties are.
Women elected to office are therefore in most cases elected as a member of a political party and as such they have a duty both to the party they represent as well as to the constituents they represent. Balancing the two is a challenge and not only for women.
My female Liberal Democrat colleagues in government such as Jo Swinson and Lynn Featherstone have pushed hard on issues that affect women such as childcare, body image and international aid.
Question: How would you advise women in the North to work together with politicians to make sure that you and others are flying our flag?
KG: It’s very challenging for the women’s sector, which is struggling to survive and keep its organisations offering basic services and support, to be a political voice and yet we need that political voice.
We need to see a vocal and organised and angry group of women and I see that working well in my own constituency: we have a group of very angry mothers protesting against the closing down of our Sure Start centres by the local authority. By embarrassing the local (Tory) council, they have had to back down, even if not by much, they have had to make changes to the closure plan.
One of the things we have been very keen to do is to look at how we can support the rebuilding of a women’s sector and women’s voice institutionally, because it is absolutely crucial that women do confront policymakers with the differential impact of their decisions on women and on men.
For politicians there also has to have a sense of popular outrage.
RT: Do not hesitate to contact your local representatives! MPs and MEPs have constituency offices, which are there to help everyone and councillors (should) run regular surgeries where concerns, problems or questions can be raised.
There is strength and mutual support in numbers and you can find other people with similar interests to you by asking around your friends, family and neighbours and looking on line for Facebook groups and local or national campaigns.
Being politically active does not necessarily mean acting through a political party; local community organisations and national interest groups may be a more suitable fora for a woman to get things changed.
Question: While recent data from 2011 census has highlighted that cities like Birmingham, Leicester and Manchester are likely to join London’s status as non-White majority cities, yet many of them do not have any BME women MPs. Do you consider mainstream politics to be institutionally racist?
KG: It’s not good enough. The under representation of ethnic minority women in parliament is really disgraceful and it matters because when people come to look at the parliament that is making decisions about their lives they need to see people in that parliament who clearly they can identify with who are clearly representative of their life experiences. If parliament doesn’t look like your life, it’s very hard for it to have any legitimacy or credibility in terms of the decisions it takes.
All political parties have to think a lot harder about how they can bring ethnic minority candidates through their selection processes so they can be standing for election and winning elections. I don’t think from my observation that any political party has really cracked to that challenge yet. One of the things we need to be doing as a party is look at the selection process which makes it difficult for women and especially ethnic minority women to navigate. When do our meetings take place? Where do they take place? What kind of formats do they follow? And which format do women from ethnic minorities feel they can contribute to?
RT: All the mainstream parties have programmes to encourage diverse candidates to come forward and internal party interest groups, which provide training and support. I cannot speak for other parties, but the Liberal Democrats have a leadership programme to develop good candidates from diverse/non-traditional backgrounds and several interest groups within the party exist such as the Campaign for Gender Balance, Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and Liberal Democrat Disability Association.
Despite our efforts, I am the first to admit that we are not doing well enough and the party is in fact currently reviewing its ethnic diversity and inclusion strategies. That review is being chaired by Baroness Meral Ece, a Liberal Democrat female Muslim peer of Turkish Cypriot origin.
Question: Would you advocate BME only shortlist for women?
KG: I’m completely in favour of all women shortlisting. We are struggling in some cases for enough women to come forward for our all women shortlist. For example for the EU elections, we have struggled to find women willing to come forward to have the 50% of the places we reserve for women filled. I’m really concerned that if you haven’t got the pipeline then simply setting up the demand is not going to be sufficient.
Question: Any further comments or statements you want to make about issue of region’s BME women and women generally on international women’s day?
KG: The thing I urge women to do is to be vocal, to be demanding, to be insistent, and to be pushy. Because women demonstrate day to day how much they can do and how they can take our society forward and I would want to say to all women, it is their right to do that and I hope they feel that fighting and pushing and not just sorting out problems and maintaining is something they are entitled to, and want to do.
RT: Get involved in your local communities and engage with your politicians at all levels of government. Political parties are the sum of their parts; women need to engage from within political parties, certainly the Liberal Democrats would welcome more womenactivists with open arms. Join single issue campaigns, agitate and engage in the political process.
Question: And what is the responsibility of male politicians?
KG: To listen to their sisters and to act with us.
NB: Some of the questions asked to Kate Green in the verbal interview were not asked to Rebecca Taylor in the written interview.