The United Kingdom went to the polls on Thursday 7th May. The second polls closed at 10PM, the BBC were able to reveal the results of their exit poll. The projected outcome - a huge swing to the incumbent Conservatives, the decimation of their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, and a sizeable loss of seats for the Labour party countered all previous opinion polling, which repeatedly projected a dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives, making a hung parliament seem a certainty for the second time in five years. Twelve hours later, as the results cascaded in, the BBC’s poll looked too cautious in its predictions for the Conservatives. After an election campaign in which every politician, journalist and analyst was confident the UK would see a hung parliament, David Cameron had secured a majority, and returned to Downing Street, unfettered by his former coalition partners.
When this reconfigured parliament sits for the first time, a change in make up will be evident amongst the new faces. More Conservatives, more Scottish Nationalists, but also more women. The number of women in the House of Commons rose by a third after all seats were returned. It’s a cheering statistic on its own, but one that merits more scrutiny. Of the 650 seats elected last Thursday, nearly 100 had all male candidates on the ballot paper. Even with the significant hike in the number of women MPs, the proportion still dwindles below a third - 191 women in parliament, compared to the 147 elected at the last election.
Of the big name politicians who lost, a large proportion were men, but for the Liberal Democrats, the loss of Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone means of their eight remaining politicians, none are women. Esther McVey, the Conservatives’ employment minister lost her Merseyside seat, and has been replaced by Priti Patel, albeit still in a male dominated cabinet.
But numbers aside, the outlook for women in the next government is far bleaker. Five years of cuts and austerity hit women in Britain far harder than men, with 80 per cent of public spending cuts affecting women. The Conservatives ran their campaign on an economic platform, arguing that they were the only party to continue to reduce the country’s deficit. Whether a deficit reduction programme is necessary or desirable depends on your political outlook, but both the Conservatives and Labour bought the neoliberal argument that austerity was the only option throughout the campaign.
Now in office, and with a majority, the Conservatives have to fulfil their election commitment to cut £12bn from the welfare budget - a sum that amounts to a 10 per cent cut in all non-pensioner spending. For those reliant on welfare benefits to make ends meet, the disabled, the low-waged, the families in poverty, this is almost unthinkable. The exponential rise in food bank demand, as a result of sanctions and stagnant wages, was arguably the most alarming fallout from the coalition’s time in office. Further cuts will not just entrench, but deepen suffering.
The Conservatives were curiously loathe to explain where the cuts would come from. To cut £12bn from the welfare budget requires some very deep cuts to benefits that have already been squeezed and reordered. Unconvincing mutterings from Conservative Party headquarters claimed the cuts would be achieved through behaviour change - but this is a canard, that is very revealing of the Conversative attitude towards poverty. People claim benefits because they need to - either their employer pays wages too low to live on and the state is forced to subsidise these business by paying benefits to their staff, or people are unable to work and feed their children, and need cash benefits to make ends meet. A ‘change in behaviour’ won’t stop the need for benefits. Someone disabled won’t suddenly decide they can work after all. A young mother won’t wake up and decide she can afford to work, pay her rent and bills and shell out for extortionate childcare purely by force of will.
Documents leaked to the Guardian newspaper mooted the shape of cuts considered by the Department for Work and Pensions. They include capping child benefit at two children, removing housing benefit for people under the age of 25, and making it harder for sick people to claim state aid when out of work. Some floated cuts affect women directly, such as making employers contribute more to the cost of statutory maternity pay, or as an alternative, abolishing it entirely.
Often women’s rights are seen as a continuum. Once fought and gained, it can be easy to assume those rights are secure, accepted as a societal duty and more, and the next battle can be fought. But threats to maternity pay can’t be seen as anything other than an attack on women’s position - if women have to choose between reproducing and working, we are intrinsically seen as second class citizens. During the last parliamentary term, huge cuts to legal aid and the introduction of fees for employment tribunals attacked women’s right to work free from discrimination. Women sacked for getting pregnant, or sexually harassed in the workplace only had access to justice if they also had access to capital. The poorest women were hung out to dry - this will only be compounded by attacks on maternity pay.
For women who do have children, and can’t find work, the leaked documents also propose forcing single parents, predominantly women, on benefits to seek work when their youngest child reaches the age of three. Currently, single parents have a duty to seek work once their youngest child reaches five years old, the age when they start full time education. At the age of three, any mother seeking work will need to find a job that pays for the extortionate childcare costs necessary for her to start work.
But as well as fresh cuts, the poorest women in the UK will experience more of the same. And “business as usual” for women in the United Kingdom since the recession has meant deep cuts and entrenched inequality. Prior to the election result, the abolition of the bedroom tax looked quietly imminent. The Labour party had promised to abolish it if elected, and Liberal Democrats had come out against it, meaning even a Conservative coalition government may have had to agree to a deal to scrap the controversial policy. Instead, the Conservatives will leave it in place. One in four households affected are single parent families, predominantly women, losing around £800 a year in benefit, and being forced deeper and deeper into debt and poverty. In total, 60 per cent of all people affected by the bedroom tax are women. Over 340,000 of the families hit by the Bedroom Tax are single women, compared to 160,000 single men and 160,000 couples. For the two years the policy has been in place, many households have just about managed to keep their heads above water, through applying for emergency grants from councils, to selling belongings. But those survival tactics only last so long: the discretionary housing payments for councils are temporary payments that are rarely permitted for longer than one or two years. On visiting a woman in Bradford affected by the bedroom tax, it was stark how bare her home was: barely any furniture, no electronics, just large, sparsely decorated rooms in an area with no smaller homes to move into. “I’ve sold it all,” she explained. “There’s nothing left.”
Equally, the rollout of Universal Credit - a much botched consolidation of multiple benefit payments - will continue. Many women’s groups and domestic violence charities have raised concern about the policy, which pays benefits to one person in a household. The potential for financial abuse and manipulation is heightened as a result: for women at risk of abuse, having all benefits paid to your partner leaves you completely financial dependent. The policy is a gift to abusers, and overlooks the many reasons benefits were paid directly to women for so long.
Breaking down the statistics, of the British population living in relative poverty, 40 per cent are women, and 23 per cent are children. Five years of the worst cuts since Margaret Thatcher’s government saw many people clinging desperately to a semblance of a life. A Conservative majority government promising deeper cuts that Thatcher looks set to rip that away, leaving a lost generation of women disenfranchised and alienated by poverty.
When you speak to the women affected, two things are stark - the anger and the fact that they are very aware that, contrary to right-wing ideology, poverty is neither something that passively happens to an individual, or a symptom of personal and moral failings. It is structural and economic violence inflicted on a section of society. The attempted atomisation of the poorest in society may not work though - when individuals reach a breaking point, rather than give up, they often fight back. Five years of cuts has pushed the women’s sector and the poorest women to the brink. Further cuts may act as the touch paper for wider resistance and fightback.
This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.