Labour: making “irreversible gains for women”?

A decade of austerity has undermined many of the economic, social and political gains achieved by women since the 1970s. Job losses, cuts to welfare and social care, and the rise in part time and precarious work, are just some of the factors intensifying the problems faced by women who have to work harder for less, whilst shouldering much of the extra domestic labour caused by our failing social care system.

By 2022, the Equality and Human Rights Commission says the average woman will have lost almost £1000 from benefit cuts alone. Lone parents will have lost fifteen per cent of their income. Study after study has shown women bearing the brunt of austerity.

This impact is not only financial. As the Tory government imposes swingeing cuts to council budgets, women’s refugees are closing, making our lives much harder. Activists believe up to a third will be forced to close. Cuts to social care place a huge burden on the family, and therefore on women.

Black and minority ethnicity women, particularly Muslims, face a triple burden of racist and Islamophobic prejudice and discrimination through the media, on the streets and in the workplace.

Given the attacks women have suffered, it is hardly surprising the majority of Labour voters are women. The anti-austerity leadership and the hugely expanded membership of the Labour Party present an opportunity for women to demand more.

A new working class women’s movement, campaigning in alliance with the unions and the Labour Party, can use the struggle to defend, restore and extend the limited gains women have made as a springboard for a discussion about how to achieve the fundamental and irreversible liberation of women.

For The Many, Not The Few

Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto promised some important steps forward for women. Providing 30 hours free childcare for two-year-olds would mean more women could afford to work or study, providing an important measure of social and financial independence from the open prison of the nuclear family. The manifesto promises to extend this to “some” one-year-olds in future, but these half measures are not good enough. New parents should have the choice between free, universal, 24-hour childcare from the end of maternity leave – or a living grant until the child attends nursery.

It’s not only children the Labour Party will provide care for: the National Care Service promises universal adult social care along the same lines as the NHS. Local Government social care budgets have fallen by over £5 billion under the Tories. Over six million people are providing unpaid care and 58 per cent of them are women. This means 1 in 4 older people who need social care don’t get it – and the sexist attitudes, which prevail in society, mean women are left to pick up the pieces. This burden of care, with the rise of complex issues like Dementia and chronic health problems, places an intolerable burden on women, particularly the hundreds of thousands of school age “young carers”.

A National Care Service would be a material step towards liberation for many women as well as those in need of adult social care. To make this achieve its ambitious goals, it needs to be integrated with the NHS within a 100 per cent publicly owned and government-funded service, democratically planned and run by workers and users, and given a sustainable foundation by nationalising the private pharmaceutical and healthcare companies.

The MeToo movement has exposed the extent to which women are subjected to sexual harassment and violence in every sphere of their lives. Labour’s promise to make teaching children about respectful relationships part of the sex education curriculum is a step towards challenging the sexist ideas which young people absorb from popular culture, their families, and their peers. But tinkering with the curriculum will be a token gesture, unless it is part of a radical reform of the whole education sector, which leads to universal comprehensive education, run under democratic control, involving the local authority, trade unions, parents and students.

Statistics show an alarming rise in sex crimes against women, which even police chiefs admit cannot be explained simply by increased reporting. All women are potential victims of male violence, but since most violence against women occurs within the family, cuts to childcare, jobs, and education, condemns working class women to economic dependence on the family, and therefore to suffer the brunt of sexual violence. In this respect, rape and domestic violence can be added to petty theft, drug dealing, and knife crime, which disproportionately blight working class communities.

Labour’s promise to create a National Refuge Fund to “ensure stability for rape crisis centres” will bolster a proven method of helping women. But the revelations of police indifference and incompetence surrounding the investigation into serial rapist John Worboys, shows we need to go beyond an opportunistic pledge to replace Tory police cuts if we want a serious approach to safety and social problems in working class communities.

Fighting for More

The Labour manifesto advances many important and vitally necessary reforms that would materially improve the lives of millions of women. We should fight for these as a bare minimum.

But Labour’s manifesto made a number of concessions to electoral calculation (properly known as opportunism) which prevented the leadership from setting out the kind of fundamental reforms needed to reverse the damage done by austerity, let alone open the road to a truly different form of economic and social organisation.

This took the form of standing on a “fully costed” manifesto, but one whose spending pledges were completely inadequate if we really want to reverse the cuts to social security and local government funding, which have had the greatest impact in forcing women out the workplace, into poverty, and responsible for a greater burden of care, with fewer resources.

In an effort to appear financially “responsible” Labour limited itself to trivial tax rises on the rich, leaving most of its pledges funded from a crackdown on tax avoidance, and the fruits of a growing economy underpinned by borrowing to invest.

Needless to say, with the threat of a hard Brexit, with the threat of trade wars, and a new recession on the near horizon, this strategy is a gamble at best or a deception at worst. The level of spending needed to seriously reorganise the economy and redistribute the wealth hoarded by the bankers and billionaires cannot be secured by John McDonnell’s reassuring lunches with them. They will only be happy with promises not to touch their huge salaries, profits and accumulated capital.

If we are serious about getting the money needed to create high quality health and childcare provision, education and investment in reducing the burden of alienating labour whether domestic or waged, we will have to seize the wealth of the billionaires and banks. The bosses have been waging a ruling class offensive against the workers and poor since the 1970s – and winning. It’s time the labour movement showed up for the fight.

The privatisation of the NHS, the destruction of pensions and social security, shows that there is no reform that is truly “irreversible” for as long as it exists in antagonism to an economic system run in the interests of the many, not the few.

If Labour wants its reforms to be durable and sincere, then it has to suppress the capitalist system which produces for private profit, and replace it with a democratically planned economy, organised to meet the needs of everyone – socialism.

By socialising childcare and domestic labour, a socialist society would progressively reduce the need for the private family to reproduce human labour, and in doing so tear up the material roots of sexism and open the road to the liberation of women and the end of social oppression.

To be carried through to the end women’s liberation means getting rid of capitalism and class society. That’s why we need to organise the participation of women in the class struggle, on the basis of a conscious recognition that there can be no socialism without women’s liberation, and no women’s liberation without socialism.


The Labour Party and Momentum can take the initiative by launching a mass socialist women’s organisation, uniting women party members, trade unionists, and socialists, which campaigns for policies that meet the immediate needs of women – and open the road to a social revolution and women’s liberation.

A new women’s movement should take up the pledges in For The Many Not The Few and extend them:

  • Open the books to trade unions and impose punitive fines and compensation on bosses who flout Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination laws.
  • Women’s caucuses in all mixed workplaces and labour and social movements, with legally guaranteed rights to publicise complaints of discrimination or harassment not dealt with satisfactorily by management or labour movement structures.
  • Free 24 hour childcare, in creches and nurseries run under the democratic control of workers and users.
  • A living wage and professional support for carers.
  • Free abortion on demand, including Northern Ireland.
  • Restore all the coalition and Tory benefits cuts and raise them to compensate for inflation.
  • Zero tolerance for rape and domestic violence. Automatic prosecution of those accused, no humiliation of complainants by police or courts.
  • A fully funded, comprehensive and secure network of rape crisis centres and women’s refuge run under the management of users and workers.
  • Support for women facing discrimination and abuse on the basis of race, sex, gender, or sexual orientation.