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Parties target women’s economic inequality, but much still needs to be done

Nicola Sturgeon unveiling SNP women’s strategy on April 25. Danny Lawson/PA

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party leader, announced her party’s “Women’s Pledge” at a live event in Glasgow on April 25, promising to deliver policies that promote equality for women. But how are the parties doing overall?

My yardstick is the blueprint that was recently published by the UK and Scottish Women’s Budget Groups, who campaign for a fully gender-equal society (full disclosure: I convene the Scottish body and am a member of the UK body). Plan F proposes to reverse the cuts to public services and social security that have particularly adversely affected women. It proposes to invest in the social infrastructure of care, health, education, training and housing. It wants Universal Credit reformed and affordable care made accessible to all.

Another priority is for the government to support and recognise people – mainly women – who provide unpaid care in families and communities. It wants more support for men to contribute more to unpaid care, and a social security system that aims at fairer sharing of caring and the costs involved.

In advance of a full analysis of the parties’ policies from the UK Women’s Budget Group, which is due shortly, I see two things: measures that address women’s unequal economic status and the ways in which existing tax, income and welfare policies all contribute; but a wider context that still generally asserts the neutrality of mainstream policy and does not have enough to say about gendered realities.

Is policy as gender-neutral as we like to think? iculig

The small print

Labour and the SNP are committed to improvements in equal-pay legislation and pay audits and to removing the Married Tax Allowance, which arguably discriminates against women. Both call for a review of Universal Credit. The SNP wants it stopped while Labour, which published a Manifesto for Women, would like to see a “pause”.

Two issues that disproportionately affect women are the fees payable to employment tribunals and the minimum wage. Labour is proposing to abolish employment tribunal fees and the Liberal Democrats will review whether they are a barrier, but the SNP is silent. On the minimum wage, Labour and the SNP are respectively proposing to raise it to £8 and £8.70 per hour. The Greens would up the rate to £10 per hour, while the Lib Dems would phone a friend – the Low Pay Commission – to ask what it thinks.

On austerity, the Conservatives are sticking with Plan A, including £12bn cuts in welfare spending. Labour too will keep welfare caps, including a cap on child benefit for the next two years as a deficit-reduction measure. So much for cutting child poverty and easing the pressures on hard-working families, favourite themes of current political rhetoric. In contrast, the SNP and Greens want to “end austerity” and do not support further caps and cuts on social security and protection.

A ‘working’ economy?

The Labour manifesto focuses on an “economy that works for working people”. But this sort of framing of the economy consistently overlooks and undermines the contribution of unpaid care and all those people for whom paid work is not an option now or in the future. Where do those people see themselves in this picture of the economy?

Access and affordability of flexible quality childcare is back on the agenda of all the main parties – not before time, many would argue. We are seeing a bidding war between the parties of between 20 and 30 hours of free provision. How this will work out when it comes to allocating resources to meet capacity at local-authority level and rebalancing reliance on expensive private-sector provision remains unclear, however.

With some signs of moves in the right direction, there is still plenty room for improvement. Major gaps in relation to the demands of Plan F are the lack of focus on investing in social infrastructure, recognising the care economy and improving the conditions of those who work in it. The relationship between economic and social infrastructure, and the reliance on an undervalued workforce are not prominent across the party interests as presented in their manifestos either.

Aside from those important issues, Labour’s Manifesto for Women and the SNP’s Women’s Pledge are leading the way among the main parties – albeit they cleave to childcare as being purely a “women’s issue”. They do recognise the imperative to tackle women’s unequal economic status and make commitments to secure equal representation of women. If we are to make women’s economic, political and social equality a reality, political parties and policy thinkers need to bring together the care economy and the “productive” economy and value women’s contribution across the board.

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