As the Women’s Equality Party spokesperson for Equal Representation, and someone who gave birth three times, each time just a week after starting maternity leave, I was stunned to hear that Labour MP Tulip Siddiq has delayed a Caesarean birth, recommended by her doctors for health reasons, in order to vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit Withdrawal Deal on Tuesday. The decision symbolises the extent to which Brexit – and the political establishment (mis)managing it – place women and minorities at the margins, and so forcing her to make an impossible choice between her political career and her family.
The 2016 referendum was triggered by David Cameron because it was his bargaining chip for remaining leader of the Conservative Party and then the country. After inflicting years of austerity with his Chancellor, George Osborne, he unleashed a referendum with a binary choice about the UK’s complex relationship with the EU.
The battle that followed was orchestrated and framed by privileged men on both sides of the debate. The failures of the remain campaign to understand the concerns of communities decimated by years of neglect and austerity are well documented, as is the simple solution offered by the leave campaign to “take back control” despite having never had control outside the Westminster bubble.
What has been less well documented by our male dominated press and media, is the particular neglect of women and minorities by both campaigns. Women make up two thirds of adults on low or no incomes, and they have borne 86 per cent of austerity cuts since 2010. Women who are Black, Asian and minority ethnic are doubly disadvantaged. Analysis by the Women’s Budget Group found that the lowest income Black and Asian households can expect to lose around 20 percent of their 2010 income by 2020.
Yet the campaigns made no attempt to communicate with voters in the language of women’s lives. The economy, jobs, trade and immigration were all framed as men’s issues. Meanwhile, women’s unpaid care work in the informal economy, estimated to be worth £77 billion a year, was not mentioned. It was a vital issue because cuts to public services resulting from economic downturn will increase the hours of unpaid work women will have to do to fill the gaps.
In the Brexit debate, jobs in social care, childcare, the health service, sectors that employ a majority of women, were ignored. However, these are the very jobs which are always top of the government’s list for pay freezes and job cuts, and after Brexit trashes the British economy leaving the Treasury with even less money to spend, these women’s jobs will be targeted for further pay freezes and job cuts. Likewise, there has been silence from the male politicians and media on the impact of trade barriers on rising household costs managed by women, particularly in single parent households, of which 92 per cent are headed by women.
Nigel Farage’s now-infamous poster of dark-skinned men queuing to enter the country, along with ongoing mainstream debates about controlling our borders from spiralling immigration numbers, frames immigrant men as predatory and immigrant women as oppressed and dependent. Since the referendum, hate crimes recorded by the police have been on the increase, rising by 17 per cent in the year up to March 2018, with race hate making up 76 per cent of the motivation of hate crimes recorded by the police.
The ongoing gender-blind approach to immigration will only serve to perpetuate these myths. The recommended income cap of £30,000 proposed by the Migratory Advisory Committee and under consideration by the government would disadvantage women: because of the global gender pay gap women are less likely to meet any income or assets-based threshold. These thresholds benefit single men, and trap women who accompany their husbands in spousal visas into financial dependence.
On Tuesday, Parliament will finally vote on the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Deal. Tulip Siddiq stated publicly that she could not trust the informal pairing system for such an important and close vote since women’s trust was broken by the Tory chief whip and the party chairman last summer, when the chief whip asked the chairman to break his pairing with Jo Swinson, who had recently given birth, and vote against an amendment to the trade bill, which was narrowly defeated.
But the truth is that, by all reports, the vote is not likely to be close at all. In fact it’s a continuation of the last two years of political charade. While there is no majority in the House of Commons for May’s deal, neither is there a majority for anything else. Until Jeremy Corbyn can be sure of numbers to topple the government and trigger an election, he will keep stalling, risking a Brexit that will hurt women and BAME communities the hardest while he can take aim at his own shot for power.
Siddiq, a BAME pregnant woman who, if empowered, could raise exactly these issues affecting women and BAME communities in the Brexit debate is for the same reasons one of our most vulnerable MPs. The real threat to Siddiq’s political career is the election Corbyn is hoping for and that is why she is under so much pressure to turn up and vote. Siddiq, like many BAME Labour MPs, got her opportunity to run for parliament in a marginal seat that is anything but safe. Three quarters of her constituents voted to remain and her constituents follow their MP’s record closely. She knows she cannot afford to miss a vote perceived as this significant this close to a potential election.
To create real democracy where women’s voices and interests are truly represented, parliament needs to be reformed in many ways. A crucial reform is replacing the pairing system urgently with an alternative that would allow a female MP to have the caesarean her doctors say she needs without missing the vote her constituents expect from her. Parliamentary reform will lead to equal representation of women in all their diversity, which is one of Women’s Equality Party’s seven core objectives.
But more than that, the entire Brexit debate needs reform. The tone and content of our parliamentary democracy does not meet women’s needs. Women and minorities need a Brexit campaign that centres on their everyday lives rather than excludes them. The official opposition party should stop gambling on an election they can’t win and get behind a people’s vote. British people need a Brexit debate run by and for the people whose needs were excluded from the Brexit conversation the first time round.