On Saturday I went to a meeting of Manchester Labour Women's Forum. This is quite a new group and so far fairly small, but it's a great environment for discussion and has some good ideas about encouraging more women into politics, so I'd definitely recommend coming along if you're a Manchester Labour Woman. Julie Reid is the City Party Women's Officer, you can get in touch with her on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ahead of the proper meeting on Saturday we had a 'listening panel' with Hazel Blears, Arlene McCarthy MEP (who is one of only three female Chairs of legislative committees in the European Parliament), Lucy Powell PPC (who will be the first female Labour MP in a Manchester constituency if she is successful in Manchester Withington at the next election) and Cllr Val Stevens, the Deputy Leader of Manchester City Council, on 'Supporting women during the recession'.
This was part of a series of consultations being held across the country and online at the moment to collect information on women's experiences of the recession, which will be fed back to Harriet Harman, Mary Honeyball MEP and other Labour figures and will form part of their discussions at the G20.
Opinion polls have found that women are more concerned about the impact of the recession than men; moreover it seems certain that with the number of women now working in the service sector, as well as in part-time and agency work, this recession will impact on women far more heavily than the last one did.Figures released by the TUC this January showed the number of women being made redundant increased by 2.3 per cent in comparison to previous years, compared to 1.2 per cent for men.
As if we didn't have enough to worry about, there are also fears that equality will slip off the agenda altogether during the recession: particularly given these comments by the EHRC regarding pay audits.
All very depressing - but I wasn't feeling it on Saturday, because it's very difficult to feel pessimistic in the presence of Hazel Blears. I've never been an especial fan of hers (or of anyone who's ever been near the Home Office, let's face it) but her enthusiasm is infectious. Her speech to the panel was mostly of course a reminder of everything the government is doing to provide Real Help Now, and dammit if it didn't honestly make me feel there might be some hope for the British workforce after all. She's like some kind of ministerial Jimmy Stewart.
On the question of whether it's acceptable to sideline women's rights during the recession, Hazel's answer was one surely even the least feminist member of the Labour Party can get behind: the government's policies on equal rights - on maternity rights, on the minimum wage from which so many women benefit - are popular. Women's votes have been important to Labour in the last three elections and we will need them if we are to win a fourth term. We will lose key votes unless we are able to reassure women, particularly women over 55, who are apparently the demographic most concerned about the recession, that we are doing everything we can for them during this time of economic difficulty, and pursuing equal pay is surely a vital part of that.
For that reason we have to ensure that Labour doesn't espouse any of the same short-sightedness evidenced in the EHRC's comment about 'being realistic in the economic climate' when it comes to equal pay. The big fear about the Tories being allowed to deal with the recession their way is that they will inflict their own brand of 'realism' on us. George Osborne has already started blaming the British people for the recession, and intends to punish us thoroughly with cuts to vital public services if he gets his hands on the Treasury.
To get us through this recession we need Real Help Now - we need Labour - but if we're going to keep the Labour government, we need something more than this to say on the doorstep. Everyone's tired of Tory-bashing (well, not us, but you know what I mean). Real Help Now is reassuring, but it's not visionary.
Hazel is not called the most optimistic member of the Cabinet for nothing. She said she'd found that voters are still very receptive to Labour, and she insists that there is no evidence of the sort of complete emotional shift away from the government seen in 1979 or 1997. She said that the two most important things Labour needs in order to secure a fourth term are:
1. a united Party
2. a vision for the future.
We need to be able to paint the voters a picture of a post-recession economy. No-one wants a return to business as usual - Gordon Brown is in the Guardian today describing how the economic crisis will change global financial systems, and there are other opportunities too: Hazel touched on the example of 'green' jobs. And as for equal pay, Jess McCabe at The F-Word said it better than I could:
"...the recession is a potential pressure point, at which we can demand change in the way the economy functions. What kind of economy do we want to emerge from this crisis? A replication of what’s gone before? Isn’t this arguably a good time for company’s to reassess their pay structures, to make them fairer?"
British workers - male and female - deserve a Labour vision of the future at the other side of this recession: and we deserve equality to be a part of that vision. Join the Fawcett Society's campaign for equal pay here.