It would be easy to mistake the new Independent Group in Parliament for an embryonic feminist party. As it stands (and numbers have been ticking upwards daily), seven of the eleven MPs who have broken ranks to sit together as a group of Independents in Parliament are women; four former Labour members among the eight in total who left earlier this week, and three former Conservatives who defected yesterday. There is as yet no announcement of a formal new party, but the wheels are in motion.
There are brilliant women among this group. Ann Coffey has been an advocate for vulnerable children and young people for years, chairing important inquiries into child sexual exploitation and calling for children trafficking drugs across county lines to be seen as victims rather than criminals. She recently backed the idea of juryless rape trials, sharing the dismay of the Women’s Equality Party at the drop in conviction rates for sexually violence crimes of against women.
Heidi Allen’s work on Universal Credit is notable, working cross party with Labour and the SNP to challenge the cruelty of the Conservative reforms. Anna Soubry was one of the few members of her party to criticise her male colleagues found to have sexually harassed women in the wake of the #metoo movement, and was open about the failings of all the Westminster parties including her own on this score. She has demonstrated integrity over Brexit and the impact it will have on those already worst off, and backbone over the backlash. The abuse Luciana Berger has experienced has been as well documented as Soubry’s, multiplied by having the audacity to be a Jewish woman with opinions.
Together they are formidable, but the meaning and impact of the Independent Group may be less so. Certainly it is a symptom of outspoken women having been sidelined in mainstream politics for too long. That is not necessarily the same thing as a determination to centre them in a brave new world.
Signals, so far, are mixed. It has been reported that the group considered aligning with other independent MPs in the House of Commons, some of whom are only independent because they still have sexual harassment claims against them outstanding. The values listed on the Independent Group’s website make no mention of addressing structural inequality as a priority or taking an imaginative economic approach.
To really change the circumstances of the mainly women relying on state support would require an economic policy that invests in women and invest in care. Universal free childcare would give women actual choices about work. Investing in social care would create more jobs that women are likely to do, creating a higher tax base and taking away the reliance on women for their unpaid care of relatives.
These women are no stranger to putting aside political differences for a common goal, whether to back Northern Irish women’s reproductive rights or a table a private members bill to create stalking protection orders. And they are able to do this precisely because these were not policy priorities for their old parties’ leadership. Let me suggest, therefore, that they again carve out their own policy priorities within the Independent Group.
The Women’s Equality Party has a raft of transformational policies we would be delighted for them to adopt and work with us on. WE would love them to help us end violence against women, by recognising and funding specialist women’s services to support survivors rebuild their lives, and by reforming the criminal justice system to work for women. WE have a costed plan for universal free childcare for 40 hours a week, 48 weeks a year from when children are nine months old, and an ambitious policy for truly shared parental leave to finally equalise childcare and make a big dent in the gender pay gap. And we hope their campaign for a second referendum on Brexit will recognise the failings of the first and this time centre the voices and experiences of women and Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
If the final composition of the new group does end up with significantly more women than men, including in the most senior roles, it will change the way their politics are conducted and for the better. But to break the political glass ceiling requires not just female politicians, but feminist policies.