The long and venerable tradition of female self-organisation means that we can seize control of the election debate, writes Jane Carolan
Election fever, we are told, is currently gripping the political parties here in Britain. Every day, every TV station faithfully reports the day’s party political pronouncements and events. The following morning sections of the press dissect and digest those same gestures according to their own partisan slant.
Miliband slates Cameron so Osborne bashes Balls, while Clegg tries in vain to reprise his old trick of shouting “a plague on both their houses.” But this is a parody of a debate.
Anyone following the recent Greek general election could not fail to notice the commitment and involvement of the Greek people in the political process. Back here, a conversation is taking place in a Westminster bubble that is excluding the concerns of 98 per cent of the population. That cannot continue.
Disaffection among voters will only breed apathy. It is time that we women started shouting our concerns and demanding answers, because women have plenty to complain about. We are being disproportionately affected in all areas of life by the austerity economics foisted on this country.
Cuts in public finances rob women of decent work, both through the direct cutting of decent jobs through redundancy programmes, and by forcing women into precarious work through privatisation — work that is characterised by low pay, zero-hours contracts and a lack of trade union rights.
Women who still have a job have seen their wages eroded through an unfair wage freeze, leading to plummeting living standards.
With women making up the ever-growing majority of low-paid workers, and the value of low pay declining under this government, the gender pay gap has increased. Working women are facing the heat or eat dilemma. Working women are relying on foodbanks.
Living standards have also plummeted for those unable to work. Research from the Women’s Budget Group (WBG) made up of policy experts and academics finds that women, particularly single parents and single pensioners, have lost much more than men from the many cuts to benefits and public services imposed since May 2010.
Their analysis shows that those two categories (both dominated by women) face cuts during the period 2010-15 of more than 10 per cent of their disposable income, with single mothers losing 15.6 per cent. Such effects are multiplied for those eligible for disability benefit.
A survey of nearly half of English councils shows how housing benefit cuts and sanctions, which lead to a loss of benefits, are driving up homelessness, with more than half of councils fearing that worse is yet to come in the next two years.
Council officials provide stark accounts of people facing severe hardship because of sanctions, being unable to find a home on housing benefit or being forced out of their local area. Many also raise serious concerns about the future impact of the bedroom tax and cuts to local welfare assistance. Yet the answer to this problem, increasing the supply of affordable rented housing, does not seem to be on the agenda.
If women’s personal financial circumstances have suffered during the austerity era, then the cuts to public services compounded the problem.
Labour Party analysis has found
that childcare costs have reached almost half of the average salary in some areas of the country.
Data collected from local councils found steep increases in the average costs of a 25-hour-per-week nursery place, with particularly high charges in London and south-east England. The highest figures quoted were in Bexley, south London, at £195 a week, and the highly marginal seat of Thurrock, Essex, at £185 a week.
Childminding costs have also soared. Parents in Britain paid out a higher proportion of their net income in childcare costs than in any other European country except Switzerland.
At the other end of the age spectrum, social care for the vunerable and the elderly has become a privatised profit-oriented industry. As the population ages, services are rationed by the introduction of charges, meaning that fewer older people can afford the range of services that they require, while social care services are run to maximise profits rather than providing services. As vital support services
such as child and elderly care drain away, women are left carrying the load.
Lack of affordable housing directly affects provision for those fleeing domestic violence, while specific services for rape and violence victims face catastrophic funding cuts. Meanwhile libraries and leisure centres, parks and open spaces, community centres and community projects are starved of funding leaving women isolated and vulnerable. Even street lighting is now subject to cuts, putting safety on darkened streets firmly on the political agenda, while the lack of local bus services leaves non-drivers — more likely to be women — stranded.
These are the issues that this general election needs to be about. Are we to be the serfs of a market that is geared
towards profit and to increasing levels of inequality, or are we entitled to be citizens of this country, mutually contributing to the common good and benefitting from that common good?
It was building on these ideas that contributed to the establishment of the welfare state, now used as a pejorative term but in reality a guarantee of a better quality of life all round.
Unison is campaigning against the government’s austerity agenda and its policy of cutting public services and public-service jobs. We believe there is a better way to balance the books, a fairer way to help us out of recession. We want to see investment in jobs and services to help our economy. Throwing thousands of people out of work will not help and there is no sign that the private sector will step in and create the thousands of new jobs that we need.
The country can afford the services that Unison members provide — services that save, protect and enrich lives — if we stop wasting money on costly privatisations and pointless reorganisations and make the banks, big corporations and the super-rich pay a fairer share in tax.
Cuts to funding are becoming critical, to the point that local authorities could be on the verge of collapse — yet if the Tories continue in power there’s more to come. Our alternative, the Unison manifesto Securing the Future of Public Services, is available on our website.
We each have a contribution to make. Do not assume that neighbours and workmates vote. Do not assume that they are aware of the alternatives. We need a million female members speaking up for public services because they care about the services they deliver and the services that they use.
One million women demanding an alternative can make a difference. One million women demanding change equals hope.
Jane Carolan is Unison Scotland national executive council policy committee chair