In 2008, a Conservative MP launched a policy called fair play on equal pay, claiming the party was willing to take action on the gender pay gap if elected. That MP, Theresa May, went on to become prime minister and in the current election, after failing to show up for a BBC debate, sent the home secretary Amber Rudd on her place to ask voters to “judge [the Conservatives] on their record”.
The evidence on equal pay is not in her favour: the Office for National Statistics pointed out last year that the pay gap has changed little in the last five years.
On domestic violence, May’s record is even worse. This week, May pledged to introduce new laws to combat domestic violence, creating a new aggravated offence when domestic violence is directed at children. There was nothing stopping May from proposing these laws during the six years she spent as home secretary: instead she presided over rampant cuts to domestic violence services, with a third of funding to local authority services cut. Since 2010, 17% of specialist refuge services have closed, and a third of women have been turned away – 103 children and 155 women a day.
Meanwhile, under May’s tenure, the rate of violent crime against women rose, from 2009 to 2014, despite dropping in the 15 previous years. Research by the Women’s Resource Centre found that 95% of women’s organisations had experienced cuts, a rate that rises to 100% for BME women’s organisations. If we judge the Conservatives on their record, it’s clear they cannot be trusted to care for those who wish to flee domestic violence.
Campaign group Sisters Uncut has occupied Holloway prison’s visitor centre, left empty since the prison’s sudden closure in 2016. Demanding the land is used for women’s services, under huge pressure in the capital, activist Aisha Streetson says the group is reclaiming the former prison, a site of violence, to demand that public land is used for public good. Streetson says prisons are an inhumane response to social problems faced by vulnerable women and the government should provide a better answer.
The group occupied the empty site at the weekend and intends to continue the protest until the end of the week. At the protest, a local domestic violence support worker, Lauren Massing points out that if the government has money for mega prisons, it has money for domestic violence support services. According to Massing, 46% of women in prison are domestic violence survivors and if they had the support they needed, it’s likely they wouldn’t have ended up in prison.
What the group demands could have a much bigger impact on women’s safety and wellbeing than what May is proposing. The existence of groups such as Sisters Uncut proves there is a crisis in domestic violence provision. As with mental health, the Conservatives are keen on words not deeds: as though “fighting stigma” can end domestic violence, or improve mental health, when a third of women are turned away from refuges, or desperate people are left without support on lengthening waiting lists.
The Conservatives’ housing policies and cuts to domestic violence have left thousands of women and children more at risk than ever, and the Conservative election response is, at best, lacklustre at best.
The Conservative manifesto promises only to “review” the funding for refuges which means it could go up, or it could be cut back even harder. Labour has promised to establish a National Refuge Fund and ensure stability for rape crisis centres.
The choice on 8 June is between deeds by Labour, or more words from the Conservatives.