This blog is part of a series from the Women's Budget Group, examining what each party's manifestos mean for women on a range of issues from Brexit to tax to funding for violence against women services
Almost a year after the EU referendum, this election is the first time voters in the UK can have a say on our post Brexit future. But what are the parties offering, and what will that mean for women? The Women's Budget Group analysis of the manifestos finds there are still more questions than answers.
In the run up to the referendum Brexit meant many contradictory things. Pro-leave campaigners promised that we could stay in the Single Market while at the same time ending free movement of labour (a fundamental criteria of Single Market membership). The infamous 'battle bus' suggested that all the money paid by the UK to the EU could be spent on the NHS, (using a figure that was described as absurd by the IFS), while at the same time campaigners promised that agricultural subsidies and other EU funding received by the UK could be protected. Campaigners from both the left and the right offered alternative models of a post Brexit UK.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum we were told simply that Brexit means Brexit, but it was many months before the Government White Paper set out what Brexit might actually mean, with no consultation over the different possible options.
So with only two weeks to go before polling day, what do the parties' manifestos have to say on their approach to Brexit, and what might that mean for women?
There is clear division between the parties about the form that a new trading agreement with the EU should take. The Conservative Manifesto rules out membership of both the Single Market and the Customs Union in favour of a 'a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement', although it also argues that 'no deal is better than a bad deal'. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party all favour remaining in the Single Market with both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens promising a second referendum at the end of the Brexit negotiations, which would include the option of staying in the EU. The SNP is arguing for Scotland to remain in the Single Market as the UK leaves the EU.
It is highly unlikely that the 'comprehensive free trade and customs agreement' promised by the Conservatives will give the UK the same terms for trade with the EU as the Single Market. Even a 'good deal' is likely to result on some sectors facing tariffs and non tariff barriers to trade with the EU. The 'no deal' option would mean trading on World Trade Organisation terms, which would lead to a significant increase in tariffs and other barriers. There is general agreement among economists that leaving the Single Market would damage the UK economy, with 'no deal' leading to significant damage. The Conservative manifesto emphasises the 'unique opportunities' that the UK has 'to forge a new set of trade and investment relationships around the world'. However, it appears unlikely that trade agreements with third countries can make up for the loss of trade with the EU.
It is not clear what form these trade deals with non-EU countries would take. The UK is unlikely to be in a strong position in negotiations with third countries if we end up with a poor trade deal with the EU since our need for deals with other countries would become more pressing, weakening our bargaining position with them.
Work by trade and gender experts has shown that trade agreements can have significantly different impacts on women and men as a result of differences in economic position, caring responsibilities and political power. All of the manifestos, with the exception of the Women's Equality Party, are silent on what these gendered impacts might be, or the specific policies needed to address them.
Here we focus on three main questions:
• What will Brexit mean for women as workers?
• What will Brexit mean for women as consumers?
• What will Brexit mean for women as users of public services?
What will Brexit mean for women as workers?
In the short term, uncertainty about the final trade deal with the EU has meant many companies have been unwilling to invest, leading to concerns about possible job losses. In the longer term there are likely to be winners and losers. Increased barriers to trade will hit sectors that rely heavily on export to the EU, and the industries that supply them while if the price of imports from the EU increase, then this may increase domestic opportunities for some UK firms, although it may also raise prices for consumers (see below). The TUC estimates that about one in ten jobs in the English regions and Scotland and one in twenty jobs in Wales and Northern Ireland are linked to EU exports. Sectors such as textiles and clothing, which have a majority female workforce are heavily dependent on trade with the EU. And if the economy goes into recession, as most economists predict, this is likely to lead to job losses for both women and men not only in these sectors but across the board.
Many of women's rights at work are underpinned by EU law. Once we leave the EU there will be nothing to prevent a future government from reducing these rights. Research by the Work Foundation for the TUC suggests that following Brexit there is a risk of an increasingly polarised labour market, with improvements in terms and conditions for some, with a growth in low pay and poor working conditions for others.
What will Brexit mean for women as consumers?
The cost of Brexit on consumers depends on what tariffs are included in any new trade deal. The Conservatives manifesto argues that 'no deal is better than a bad deal', which would mean the UK trading with the EU under World Trade Organisation (WTO rules). USDAW has calculated that the combination of increased tariffs under WTO rules and a fall in the value of the pound could cost the average household £580 a year. Many essential goods such as fruit, vegetables and footwear, would see some of the largest increases, hitting the poorest families hardest. This is likely to have a particular impact on women, who tend to have primary responsibility for household budgets.
EU consumer law sets the framework for consumer rights in the UK. Once we leave the EU there will be nothing to prevent a future government from reducing those rights. Consumer rights could be particularly impacted by trade deals with non-EU countries. The US for example allows for the chlorination of chicken or hormones in beef and would be likely to want to ensure access to UK markets for these products.
If the UK economy was badly hit by a poor trade deal with the EU this could make it harder for the government to resist demands that we lower consumer standards to allow these products to be imported into the UK.
What will Brexit mean for women as users of public services?
Women are the main users of public services and the majority of those working in the public sector. If the UK economy goes into recession as a result of leaving the EU this will reduce the tax base to pay for public services and social security benefits. We know that the austerity policies introduced by the 2010 Coalition Government, following the financial crisis, and continued by the 2015 Conservative government have hit women hardest. Women have lost income as a result of cuts to in and out-of-work benefits and have been hardest hit by cuts to public services. All the parties have made commitments in their manifestos for additional spending on the NHS and/or investment in infrastructure. Will the next Government, of whatever party, deliver on these commitments if the economy goes into recession and the tax base shrinks?
In addition, countries like the US are likely to want greater access to UK public services for their companies. Again, a poor trade deal, or no trade deal, with the EU would put the UK in a weaker position to resist this pressure. Based on trade deals elsewhere, and the now abandoned deal between the US and the EU (TTIP), such a trade deal could include provisions that would give overseas companies the power to sue the UK government if it took action that would damage the profitability of these companies such as increasing the national minimum wage or bringing services that have been privatised back 'in house'.
Until we know what form our new trading arrangements with the EU and the rest of the world will take, it is impossible to predict with certainty the impact on women. However, it is clear that there are serious questions that women should be asking all parties in advance of the election. And whatever party wins we need a commitment that the impact on women should be properly analysed and taken into account during negotiations and before any deal is signed.