Jeremy Corbyn and women’s experiences of austerity

Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for Labour Party leadership may also mean that the damage of austerity, particularly to women, is finally being recognised. 

Emily Wight
30 July 2015

As a full-time PR officer and the only parent in her household, Kate Shadbolt’s two-year-old son needs nursery care 40 hours per week. Taking into account her tax credits and child benefit, childcare still costs her £600 per month. “I’m privileged enough to have two degrees from world-class universities and a higher than average salary, so I’m often left wondering how others in a domestic situation similar to mine, earning less, are able to juggle the costs of family life and childcare fees, while working full time”, the 27-year-old says.

Earlier this year, a survey by the Family and Childcare Trust found that the cost of childcare had increased by a third in just five years. But a recent surge in support for the opposition’s most left wing leadership candidate could see this financial pressure, and more, be alleviated from women all over the country. Could it be possible that, come 2020, mothers in the UK will no longer have to worry about paying for childcare. 

If the polls are to be believed, Jeremy Corbyn is on course to be the next leader of the Labour Party: last week’s YouGov poll put him at 46 per cent, significantly ahead of previous favourite Andy Burnham on 26 per cent.

This week he launched Working with Women, which set out his strategies to make society more equal for women. The document, which also pledges a commitment to a shadow cabinet that is made up of 50 per cent women, an obligation for companies to publish equal pay audits, and an end to the public sector and welfare cuts that impact largely on women, sets out universal free childcare as a goal Corbyn aims to work towards. 

“Women face abuse, mistreatment and persistent discrimination, and they face it in work, at home and on our streets. Yet they disproportionately shoulder our unpaid care work, the daily grind of surviving on low pay, and the pain of cuts that have closed domestic violence shelters and left them with no safe haven," Corbyn said.

women protesting on budget day.jpg

Women protesting on Budget Day 2012. Credit: Robin Hood Tax CampaignFor Shadbolt, this is huge. “I don’t just think it is important - it is absolutely critical parents, dads or mums, are better supported if we are to develop as a society and ensure all children, no matter what the background, all have the same start. I am well paid and work full time and still struggle to make ends meet, which begs the question: how people who earn less than me manage?”

“If (universal free childcare) happens - which I hope it will - I will be able to enjoy a better quality of life and the money I will have saved I will be putting back into the economy”, she adds.

Rachael Ward, 23, agrees. She doesn’t have children now, and says she wouldn’t be able to afford childcare or to give up her job in digital advertising. She believes the same would be true were she earning £10,000 more than she does currently.

While the proposal doesn’t affect Ward directly, it’s the one she’s most excited about of all Corbyn’s plans for women. She believes society’s normalisation of paid childcare influences our perception of the “right” age for women to have children. ‘I really believe childcare is mistakenly seen as an issue for parents and older women, but the total unaffordability of having children has totally skewed our perception of when it's ok to have children”, she says.

“I want to chose to have children when it's right for me, not wait until I'm in a salary bracket I may never attain - I think universal free childcare goes a long way towards that.”

While the gender pay gap and the representation of women in politics is at least discussed in mainstream political discourse - even Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron claims he wants to eliminate the gender pay gap “within a generation” and the Labour Party has a policy of all-women shortlists for parliamentary seats - Corbyn’s contenders seem to only halfheartedly oppose austerity and its impact on women.

Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall, praised by many feminists for telling the Mail on Sunday to “fuck off” for asking about her weight, echoes the Osbornian view that Labour “spent too much”. Yvette Cooper joined Burnham and Kendall on abstaining from voting on the Conservative government’s recent welfare bill, despite having commissioned House of Commons research finding that women will be hit twice as hard by public sector and welfare cuts than men.

But 48 Labour MPs did vote no to the welfare bill, and one of them was Corbyn. For 22-year old Aisling Gallagher, it’s the Islington North MP’s hardline positioning against austerity - something other leadership candidates lack - that is attractive to women. “Governmental economic policies (ie cuts and “reforms”) have a hugely devastating impact on women and even more so on black women, migrant women, disabled women and so on”, she says.

She adds: “Benefit cuts? Disproportionately harm women. Slashing local council budgets? Vital services get axed, which disproportionately affect women. Reducing or limiting tax credits? Disproportionately hurt women. Corbyn is the only one who can say he has consistently been principled throughout his time in parliament, with every other candidate, to varying degrees, having voted through or even championed causes or legislation that has harmed women.”

With the news that public service union UNISON have now joined UNITE to back Corbyn for leader, there may finally be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for Britain’s women this week, if this means that the damaging impact of austerity on women is finally being recognised. 

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