Jayne Dowle: Leave us women out of laboured election stunts

ED Miliband thinks that we need a special election manifesto for women. If this is the case, he needs to do a lot more than persuade three of his most senior female politicians to turn up to a nursery and mess about with a few rubber ducks. The photo opportunity in south London, accompanied by Labour’s pink battle bus, was supposed to be a chance for the party to show it is in touch with its feminine side.

Actually, all it did was to prove yet again how marginalised women are becoming in this General Election campaign. Do we really need an agenda of our own? Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman, accompanied by Yvette Cooper and Gloria de Piero, simply got the chance to reinforce a stereotype which is becoming tiresome. All women want is free childcare, right? Er, yes, it is a good idea. However, it is not the panacea for all female ills. For a start, not all new mothers want to be bullied and hectored back into the workplace.

We’ve moved on. It seems that Labour hasn’t though, and this silly publicity stunt proves it.

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If the party is to target its appeal at a wider base of women than working mothers with babies and young children, it must do better than this. What about working mothers with older children left to roam the streets when secondary schools – now free to set their own hours – close at half-past two in the afternoon? I haven’t heard a single politician mention this, but what do they think is a major cause of anti-social behaviour? It’s
bored youngsters wandering about after school with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

And hold on a minute. Did we ask for our own agenda? I don’t know about you but I don’t much care for this outdated concept. This is 2014, not 1974. Talk about moving on. I can think of many things I would like to add to the “women’s agenda” but every single one of them affects men too. Labour’s list of matters it thinks we might be interested in also includes doubling the amount of paid paternity leave which fathers can take, introducing a Violence Against Women and Girls Bill, and establishing more secure funding
for rape crisis and domestic violence centres.

As far as I can see, all of these policies work two ways; they involve men as well as women. Rather than struggle with trying to find a way to describe such ideas – because I can just imagine the clumsy “non-gender-specific” label the party would come up with – why not just include them all in an agenda which covers all bases? Instead of tackling the root causes of sexual abuse and violence, by challenging and educating those who perpetuate it, the responsibility for sorting it out is placed yet again in the court of the victims.

And I can’t see anything here which mentions dealing with the responsibilities of social services, local councils and the police. Have politicians learnt nothing from what happened in Rotherham? Protecting women and girls? How patronising are these measures? In fact, how patronising is the whole concept?

If Miliband really wants to promote an agenda devoted entirely to women, he needs to cut to the chase. Low pay and unequal pay, at every level from the supermarket shop floor to the boardroom. Absent fathers who wriggle out of child maintenance. Punishing pension rules which mitigate against women who take time out to look after children. Lack of financial support for carers. Hard economic facts, in other words.

And if Labour really wants to promote women, those in charge need to put a stop to these demeaning photo opportunities and publicity stunts. They are a waste of time and do more harm than good. There is one thing, and one thing only, which would really convince the voting public that Labour are
serious about gender equality. Next time around, elect a female leader. Heaven knows that there are plenty of able female MPs, with years of experience of foot-slogging service as senior Shadow Ministers. Privately, they must be rolling their eyes to Heaven every time that Harman’s pink battle-bus looms into view.

Until the day of true gender equality dawns, wouldn’t it be better for Labour to devote itself to “equality” full-stop? Leave us women out of it and concentrate on making a fairer society for everyone, regardless of gender. Never mind the rubber ducks. This women’s manifesto is a lame duck.