Feminism for the future

Trident: Feminists have been in the vanguard of campaigning against nuclear weapons, with many of the same moral, economic and security arguments as those advanced by the rest of the left. The argument more specific to feminism, however, is about the role of nuclear weapons in perpetuating and enforcing an institutionally unequal world order dominated by militaristic male power, of which such weapons are both symbol and projection.

Defence unions have resisted real debate within the labour movement on opposition to Trident because of the well paid, highly skilled jobs it sustains in construction, steel, heavy engineering and transport infrastructure. Light engineering design and manufacturing jobs involved in guidance systems are seldom highlighted, and yet hundreds of highly skilled women electronic engineers in Scotland earn their livings in that part of the defence sector (albeit typically on lower wages than their male colleagues). Power to decide on renewing Trident, like the UK’s wider Defence and Security Strategy, lies with Westminster but parties of the left in Scotland could have a significant influence on that decision, including on revoking it if it is made, as seems likely, in favour of Trident renewal.

The manifestos for 2016 would make a start on this by going beyond expressing opposition and rehearsing the moral, political, and economic arguments. Each manifesto should contain a commitment to establish a broadly based and gender balanced Industrial, Manufacturing, Research and Development Commission, to consult widely on a time frame to produce a fully costed integrated strategy, one part of which would identify how to replace in every affected community every job, skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled which might be lost by a decision to abandon the renewal of Trident. Part of its remit would be to consider at every stage how manufacturing could be developed and shaped so women have equal opportunity, equal recognition, and be rewarded for their work and contribution, both social and economic.

Austerity and Welfare: Feminism is not about men, or even about women. It is, like socialism, about society. It is about structural transformation and radical change. Austerity is entirely and unreservedly about protecting, reinforcing, and perpetuating a status quo whose globally powerful elite will always be mostly white, mostly male, and entirely devoted to unfettered capitalism.

Women are disproportionately affected by austerity measures and welfare cuts. According to Engender, ‘Between 2010 and 2014, 85% of the £26bn worth of cuts announced by the UK coalition government came from women’s incomes. This is because of systemic issues that see women twice as dependent on social security as men. Women are twice as likely to give up paid work in order to become unpaid carers, 92% of lone parents are women, the pay gap persists at 32% for women’s part-time work, and women’s economic independence is undermined by endemic domestic abuse’.

The Scottish Government is to have new powers over welfare, but it is not yet clear what will be the extent of these powers – whether, for instance, in addition to the power to ‘top-up’ some benefits, the Scottish Government will have powers to determine matters such as entitlements, deductions, sanctions, and incentives. The UK Government has made it abundantly clear that any ‘top-ups’ to benefits in Scotland must be funded via the income tax raised in Scotland and retained by the Scottish Government. The party manifestos must beware of promising increases they cannot deliver. The Scottish Government will certainly not have sufficient powers to devise and implement a decent welfare state (rooted not in safety nets and mitigatory benefits but social and community security).

Accepting this, there are nevertheless changes which can be made. Access to comfortable housing with security of tenure, good service provision, and supportive infrastructure is perhaps the element of social policy most important to women’s welfare. Mitigating the bedroom tax has been expensive for Scottish Government and local authorities alike. All parties should pledge to scrap it altogether. This should apply also to benefits paid in respect of Council Tax remission in respect of number of rooms.

More than 50% of Scotland’s rented housing falls below standards required. Rents, not benefits, should be capped, with landlords required to put a portion of rents they collect into a special ‘Building Society’ for maintenance and repair. Left parties should commit to a programme of building, acquiring and renovating houses for affordable rent in public ownership – whether by councils, housing associations or tenant co-operatives and including acquiring at market value former council, and other houses and flats which would otherwise be privately rented.

Unpaid carers: More than 60% of unpaid carers who have had to take a break from work to care for someone else are women, saving the Scottish economy £10.8bn a year. Their Carers’ Allowance- if they claim it – is taxable, topped up to the level of Job Seekers’ Allowance by income support, and they have no other statutory benefit or entitlement. Manifestos should promise to begin to work towards a living wage for unpaid carers, but in the meantime to raise the allowance to the level of the average weekly payment for a foster parent – around £165 per week, tax free.

Women without recourse to public funds: Left parties should commit to ensuring sufficient access to public services and funds to ensure no woman experiencing domestic abuse, and no woman trafficked into the UK for exploitation of any kind, should be unable to access sufficient support to allow her to access the accommodation and services she needs. All parties should sign up to a summit including unions, third sector, local authorities, campaign and policy groups and parliamentarians to launch a review to make more fair and effective the benefits system in Scotland and maximise the new powers.

Human rights: Whatever the outcome of Tory plans to repeal Labour’s Human Rights Act to ensure the European Court of Human Rights is no longer binding over the UK Supreme Court and it is no longer able to order a change in UK law, becoming an advisory body only, all left parties should promote manifesto pledges to oppose all such moves, and to review and amend all Scottish legislation to ensure human rights, including the rights of women, are incorporated in every aspect of their design and implementation.

Trade Union Bill: It is a vicious attack on workers’ rights and profoundly sexist. Unions have for decades fought for women’s rights – for equal pay and equality of opportunity, against discrimination and harassment. The Bill will severely impede these. Austerity measures affect women more than any other group, whether those who use them or deliver. Outsourcing has already made it difficult for unions to recruit and organise women workers. The Bill will make it increasingly difficult even in the public sector for women to join and be represented by unions.

All left parties should pledge to support opposition to the Bill in the UK Parliament, and in Scotland that they would seek to find ways of blocking the implementation of the bill via existing constitutional or new Scottish Legislation, pending which they would support the Scottish Government – and local Authorities – to refuse to cap the facility time agreed with unions, and to continue to offer to its employees the facility of deducting union dues at source.

Taxation: More than 50% of Scots earn less than £25,000pa. Only 15% earn more than £45,000pa. Less than 1% (around 1700 individuals) earn more than £150,000pa. There are 150,000 people on housing waiting lists in Scotland. Over 120,000 have used a Food Bank in the past year. Left parties should pledge to use the new powers over income tax to reverse Cameron’s new higher rate thresholds, and to review income tax rates, bands and collection in Scotland over the next five years with a view to developing a more equitable and redistributive system of progressive taxation in accordance with needs. Scotland’s left parties agree the Council Tax is discredited, and must be replaced. Tribalism which bedevils Scottish politics prevents them from reaching agreement as to how local government should be financed. The best manifesto commitment each of them could make, now that they have worked together on the Commission on Local Tax Reform, is to co-operate on ending it, and introducing a system which gives power, responsibility and democratic accountability back to local authorities and communities, and which combats austerity by reinvigorating the ability of councils to provide high quality services.

NB: The Holyrood 2016: Gender Matters Manifesto, produced by Engender, has 20 commitments it wants to see included in Scotland’s political parties’ manifestos. These were produced after widespread consultation with women’s groups and organisations. See http://www.engender.org.uk/files/Engenders-Gender-Matters-Manifesto—Twenty-by-2016.pdf