Media responses have pointed to the lack of women in the new shadow cabinet, but the policy response to austerity will have more impact on women's lives in the UK
After a seismic weekend for British politics, which saw the left candidate for the Labour leadership, Jeremy Corbyn, lurch from rank outside to victor with a 59% victory, what does his victory mean for women? Within 48 hours of winning, the new leader had appointed his shadow cabinet. Many people responded to the initial appointments, specifically shadow chancellor, home secretary and foreign secretary which were all handed to men. More than half of the cabinet posts went to women, but critics have focused on the fact that the leader and the three top shadow ministers are all men. As Caroline Molloy pointed out, the sudden interest in gender parity from commentators who have backed austerity for years is as remarkable as it is disingenuous.
John McDonnell, the new chancellor, argued that the insinuation that these posts were the ones that mattered belongs to an outdated idea that the foreign secretary, for instance, is more powerful than the health or education secretary. Corbyn has hinted that Britain needs to move away from the grandstanding militarism characterising a lot of the past decade or two of politics, and that the political obsession with Britain’s position on the world stage is unhelpful and destructive, tending as it does towards militarism over peacekeeping.
But the argument centres on a belief that women will always act in the best interests of women. If you buy that argument, and the idea that having women in boardrooms, top jobs and positions of power will engender a better deal for women, the situation is unpalatable. But class interests and gender interplay very strongly in politics, and it’s not always possible for the two to co-exist. In Cameron’s cabinet, for instance, Theresa May is one of the people inhabiting the most ‘powerful’ positions. The women incarcerated in Yarls’ Wood, where conditions have deteriorated rapidly, as documented by Clare Sambrook, Jennifer Allsopp, and other writers for openDemocracy, will take little comfort from the knowledge that the policies that oversee their mistreatment are enacted by a woman rather than a man.
Perhaps key is the fact that McDonnell’s appointment as chancellor sends a clear signal that the austerity programme accepted by both the Conservatives and the previous Labour shadow cabinet, will be fought tooth and nail by Corbyn’s new chancellor. Few MPs have been so outspoken against austerity as McDonnell, and he has a long history of fighting austerity and welfare cuts. In the House of Commons on the debate over the recent Welfare bill, which Harriet Harman controversially told Labour MPs to abstain from voting on, McDonnell broke the whip and voted against the next tranche of cuts, saying he would “swim through vomit” in order to oppose it.
Austerity has hit women far harder than men since the recession, with 80% of cuts affecting women. Cuts have seen women’s refuges close, sanctions applied to the very poorest, a rise in homelessness and precarity in housing, and the demolition of legal aid for women fleeing domestic violence or subjected to sexual discrimination in the workplace.
Having a Labour party that opposes austerity is key to fighting back against cuts that have hit women in the previous parliament. In the past five years, the benefit of having women in the cabinet remains to be seen, for migrant, low paid, or abused women. David Cameron increased the gender representation in his cabinet after much criticism: an outpouring of policies that directly benefit women remains elusive. For now, it seems as though there is no difference: the powerful look after the powerful, with gender as an afterthought, or a bargaining chip when trying to deflect criticism for cuts that harm women.
The idea that getting more women into positions of power automatically benefits women as a whole seems logical, but curtly overlooks competing interests, of class, race, and social and economic position. Whilst parliaments and cabinets continue to be predominantly white, male, pale and stale, those women who do elbow their way in tend not to be the acutely underrepresented, but those who fit into a similar culture. The Conservative’s portrait of Margaret Thatcher, a lowly daughter of a greengrocer, crucially misrepresents the fact that she was a university educated barrister, and her father was less a grocer, more an entrepreneur and business owner. For most women, Thatcher’s policies had a clear detrimental effect on their lives, if they weren’t cushioned by wealth.
The fact that briefs including health, education and business are seen as less important than treasury and defence posts is insulting to the women appointed to these positions, but also corresponds to a way of thinking that Corbyn seeks to combat. For now, critics and supporters of Corbyn have little option but to wait and see what policies emerge under the new leader, and how his opposition fares on fighting policies that hurt women. His popularity with women polled suggests he may do very well, in spite of his gender.