Friday, 30 September 2011

Let's Not Roll Backwards on Female Equality

This is a guest post by Lucy James and originally appeared in Progressive Women

Political mud-slinging will always be standard practice.

It was inevitable that at a Labour conference, the Coalition would be getting the blame for ‘rolling back the clock’ on female equality – even more so at a conference where Labour were in opposition.

Yvette Cooper, with her Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities hat on, blamed the coalition Government in no uncertain terms as she berated them for implementing drastic cuts to welfare that are having “devastating changes to women’s lives”.

Ed Miliband made the same scathing criticisms against the cuts, particularly in relation to the slow growth of the economy, although they were less focused on specific issues of gender. However, his reference to ‘child-tax credits’ and his language of ‘families’ perhaps paid some lip service to the difficulties women face.

But what made conference far more interesting were the internal debates within the Labour Party itself. This was a conference where Labour was trying to redefine itself – it was Blue versus Purple versus Red.

Women need to be at the frontline of this political redefinition as the resulting outcome will have long-lasting repercussions on Labour’s attitudes and practical policies towards gender equality. 

The Fabian Women’s Network fringe event ‘Is Blue Labour feminist?’ was a fantastic starting point for the sorts of discussions we need to be having.  Blue Labour, a phrase coined by its chief advocate Maurice Glasman, has been hugely controversial within the Labour Party particularly, amongst other things, for its views on immigration.

It is a complex political philosophy but, in slightly crass terms, it is a move towards a more socially conservative philosophy that elevates the role of local communities and families and devalues the role of the state.

This philosophy has created fierce resistance from some feminists – none more so than from Helen Goodman MP who viciously attacked Blue Labour in June.

Left-leaning feminists could be forgiven for hearing alarm bells when reading these premises: women rely on childcare provision and public sector employment that are reliant on the welfare state; the stress on the term ‘family’ evokes images of increased domestic responsibility at the expense of progress in the workplace; an emphasis on ‘community’ conjures up fears of further reliance on women as carers for the young and for the old.

But is this irrational? And is this even a fair portrayal of Blue Labour? (For a far more substantial analysis read Ivana Bartoletti’s interview with Glasman in the first edition of Fabiana).

And even if it is, does Blue Labour really have any influence at the top echelons of the Labour Party anyway?

Ed Miliband’s speech has been branded a shift to the left – to ‘red’ Labour, perhaps. But was his rhetoric of responsibility and values, and his emphasis on communities, indicative of the influence of Blue Labour on his thinking? And even if it was, is this necessarily a bad thing for women’s rights within the party?

In her speech, Yvette Cooper emphasized “the growing anger” of women. This may be, but it is vital that Labour party feminists don’t exhaust their energies simply criticizing the coalition. They must also get to grips with the evolving internal philosophies of their party and establish and engage themselves in their development.

In an ‘age of austerity’ and substantial cuts, gender issues are in flux as women disproportionately shoulder the burden. It is only with their active involvement in the ongoing redefinition of Labour that women’s equality will remain high on the agenda. They need to make sure that Labour doesn’t ‘roll the clock back’ either.

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