At election time, women become an “issue”, rather than being seen as legitimate voters, with as varied a sweep of interests as other citizens. They become an umbrella term for policies on childcare, workplace rights and education (but only primary and secondary – those in tertiary education are classed as “people”). “Women’s” policies always exist, but their prominence waxes and wanes. The election in 1997 was a big one for women, since childcare had only just arrived on the agenda and a revived Labour party noticed that the maleness of the Conservatives could be used as an attack line. But 2017 is not a big women’s election, in the sense that gender isn’t a talking point. However, this masks the seismic effects the various manifestos could have on women – for good and bad, from major parties and minor ones.
Pay gap, domestic violence and care costs
In the Tories’ manifesto, policies aimed explicitly at women are vague: on equality in the workplace, the only concrete step is to force companies with more than 250 employees to declare their pay gap. Otherwise, they will “work for parity in public appointments” (it is not clear from the syntax what that even means, let alone what it would look like). They will also “provide parents and carers with the confidence to return to work”. Again, the language is unenlightening: if you did experience a surge in confidence, how would you be able to tell whether it came from the government?
In real terms, the right to a year’s unpaid leave to look after a sick relative would affect women more than men, although who knows how many people could afford to claim it. Thirty hours of childcare for three- and four-year-olds for “working parents who find it difficult to manage the costs” is the minimum offer from any party. In any case, the entitlement to this benefit is sloppily defined – doesn’t almost everyone find childcare costs difficult? There are promises on domestic violence, some of which are a bit vacuous, such as ensuring the police investigate thoroughly. Others, such as setting a clear definition in law, are more meaningful.
All of this pales into insignificance against the provision, or lack thereof, for social care: everyone will pay for their own care from their own assets, unless these amount to less than £100,000. The cost for a dementia patient, say, will be huge. (In a major manifesto U-turn, May announced today that this cost will be capped, but not at what level.) If there is such a thing as a “women’s issue”, this is it: more women than men have dementia, and women are 2.5 times more likely than men to care for someone with dementia, which makes them isolated, depressed and more likely to get dementia.
Workplace rights and a National Care Service
Labour, meanwhile, has the same idea on domestic violence – like the Tories, it has pledged to appoint a commissioner. However, they go further on both workplace rights and early-years provision. They will reverse the employment tribunal fees introduced by the coalition government, which quietly capsized maternity discrimination law; the statute still existed, but nobody could afford to enforce it. The impact was significant.
Extending the free provision of 30 hours of childcare to two-year-olds will be significant, as will rolling it out to one-year-olds, although this is only something Labour wants to “move towards” for “some”. The increase in the allowance for carers will have a greater impact on women than men. The recent sleight of hand, whereby women born in the 50s had their pension age changed without notice, is addressed, but pretty loosely (“Labour is exploring options for further transitional protections”). Probably the most meaningful promise is their National Care Service – universal provision of adult social care along NHS lines. It is slated to cost £3bn, but will probably cost more. Whatever you make of the affordability, the only way to manage ill-health in old age that doesn’t present life-altering inequality to women is to socialise risk.
Lib Dems, Greens, WEP and Ukip
The smaller parties – we could group them together as the Unelectables and make them sound like a heist movie – are habitually ignored at the granular level and discussed only in the broad terms of what manner of protest a vote for them represents. However, this is a mistake: ultimately, while the Lib Dems will never be the majority party in parliament, and the Women’s Equality party are unlikely even to form part of a coalition, the ideas they ignite invariably show up in the language of the mainstream parties, if not immediately in the policies.
The Lib Dems don’t have much on women – there are promises on childcare, but they are indistinguishable from Labour’s. All the workplace measures – women on boards, pay-gap transparency – are so close to those in the Conservative manifesto that the whole election starts to read as though some bright spark was trundling around in an ice-cream van, handing parties ready-made policy packages (“Ten policies for the go-getting adventure feminist”; “nine great lines for the build-a-better-society feminist”). To be fair to the Lib Dems, all their flagship promises relate to Brexit, presumably because this is their electoral strategy and also what they truly believe. Oh, rare confluence! Sometimes, it must be quite fun to be a Lib Dem.
The Greens have a specific women’s manifesto: 10 promises, four of which are about asylum seekers, three about sex workers and three about the NHS. It can seem a bit niche – while the abolition of asylum seekers’ detention centres affects a small number of women profoundly, it doesn’t feel like a broad, social rallying cry. Decriminalising sex work is a hand-grenade of a policy – one I agree with, incidentally. It looks like the almost deliberate generation of controversy on terrain typified by unusual levels of cross-party consensus. They are casting themselves as kite fliers, rather than implementers, using the election as an opportunity to draw out contention in uncomfortable areas that politics prefers to ignore.
The Women’s Equality party looks at every policy area – from Brexit and immigration to health and education through violence, the media and family – and imagines what it would take to make each more equal. The result is an extraordinary document, with very broad and long-term aims (integrating health and social care and developing a gender-sensitive, evidence-based strategy for both) abutting rather simple ideas (“stop the use of the stigmatising term ‘economically inactive’ for those working at home”). They have caught some flak for standing a candidate – Nimco Ali – in a seat where the more recent MP was a woman (and a brilliant MP, Catherine West), but it is misplaced. The WEP is doing the painstaking graft of reimagining all politics through the lens of equality. It has to stand candidates as a crucible for those ideas and their dissemination. Only where the other parties stand aside for an anti-Tory alliance, as in Shipley, do they expect to win anything.
Finally, Ukip, which has delivered the most astounding set of ideas for women I have read from any party in any election since universal adult suffrage was enacted in 1928. As well as legislating on what women are allowed to wear, they want to introduce a mandatory annual vaginal examination for schoolgirls, plus one whenever they come back from holiday. Some national outcry would have been in order against an idea so invasive, discriminatory and insulting to bodily autonomy that it makes Tim Farron’s pro-life phase look like a brush with membership of the Rotary club. But it only applies to women and girls who are Muslim – so that’s all right, then.