Conservatives: A New Approach To Women’s Issues

Ann WiddecombeA reader recently wrote in to complain about anti-Tory bias on these pages. In particular it was in reference to an image used in my blog piece on the protests outside of the Ann Widdecombe anti-abortion roadshow, in which some women were holding a banner reading “Don’t let Tories roll back women’s rights”. I didn’t have a chance respond at the time although I meant to (sorry about that) so here it is, a little late.

In that particular piece I don’t think the image was unfair or out of context, since we were protesting a rally called by a high profile Conservative MP (albeit one who is about to retire). I don’t generally intend to display partisan bias, but it is fair to say I don’t consider myself a natural Tory. I have a special disdain for the type of Conservatives who manage to marry a belief in small government and a laissez-faire economic approach with an interventionist approach to people’s private and family lives, and in particular their sex lives. It’s always struck me as a fairly inconsistent set of values, to be honest. Libertarianism seems the more honest and coherent position than Conservatism in its traditional sense.

Eleanor LaingI’m nevertheless aware that there are those within the Conservative Party who have worked hard for women’s issues, and who do not adhere to nuclear-family church-going warm-beer-and-cricket Conservatism. Eleanor Laing springs most immediately to mind, having worked on women’s issues in parliament for some years and voted against her party for gay and transsexual rights. John Bercow

John Bercow addressed the Abortion Rights rally in parliament which preceded the protest, saying that since some people had brought up the issue of changing the law on abortion (i.e. by restricting access to it) that “those who want an abortion law fit for the 21st century should use the opportunity to create it”, and called for an end to the requirement for two doctor’s signatures. He has also cast rebel “no” votes in the Commons against requirements for parents of under-16s to be informed about contraceptive prescriptions and for mandatory pre-abortion counselling. So I think pro-women Tories can and demonstrably do exist, despite my general disdain for the party.

Theresa MayWith all that in mind, let’s have a look at the Conservative report, launched this week by Theresa May (Shadow Minister for Women) to provide “a new foundation for Conservative policy on women’s issues”.

The report opens by criticising Labour policy on women as having been too heavily based on legislation, and for treating ‘women’ as an homogeneous block. The Tory approach, by contrast, would focus on women as “thirty million individuals”. They are upfront about saying the Tory policy would be to pursue equality of opportunity, not outcome, which accords with Tory philosophy more generally. As Jess pointed out to me, this approach is at risk of understanding the structural and group dynamics of oppression against women. But those principles are really at the heart of Conservativism and unlikely to change, so let’s press on.

Much of the document is light on proposals, and restricts itself to talking around a number of women’s issues and presenting a range of evidence which implies ‘something needs to be done’ without saying much explicit about what or how. I guess you could say they’re aligning themselves with the issues. In particular they reject the oppression of women in the name of religion or culture (FGM, polygamy, honour killings etc = bad) and stress the importance of the role of women in international development, reconstruction and poverty relief. To be honest, a lot of stuff that is easy to say and hard to disagree with. That sounds snide, and isn’t meant to be, but there’s not much on any of the issues in the back end of the document that is concrete.

Up front there’s some stuff to get our teeth into. They criticize the Labour policy of trying to force single mothers into work, and for not providing adequate choice in childcare for those who do work. Their concrete proposals for women and work include:

  • Compulsory equal pay audits when an employer is found to have discriminated at an employment tribunal (EPAs are currently voluntary under Labour, who introduced the concept).
  • A “reasonableness test”; to be introduced for employment tribunals – currently an employer can furnish a “material reason” why someone is paid less than a colleague and a judge has no power to judge whether this is reasonable. This would change.
  • Extending flexible working rights to all parents of children under-18 (not just mothers) to try to correct the balance of gendered jobs, where women are ghettoised in flexible jobs which tend to be low paying.
  • Improve the quality of careers advice to girls in school, encouraging ambition and advising on the material impacts of the choices available to them.

Later on in the document – and here’s where I fell off my chair – they tackle rape, proposing:

  • “Stable, long term funding cycles for Rape Crisis centres” (currently struggling for funding under Labour).
  • Tackling societal attitudes towards rape by making “the teaching of sexual consent “a mandatory part of sex education”.
  • A review of rape sentencing.

The final issue of substance (in terms of explicit proposals) is human trafficking. The first proposals feel a bit more like the Tories of old, using this serious issue to push through what feels like an opportunist policy to toughen up border controls, establish a UK border police force and introduce mandatory separate interviews for women travelling with a man who is not a parent, guardian or husband. This rings my bell a bit. Does this mean that if I pass through customs with my boyfriend I’ll be subject to a full cavity search? Or only if I had an Eastern European accent? It’s an odd one. It gets more sensible, though, with proposals for:

  • More resources devoted to catching and prosecuting traffickers.
  • Increased funding for safe houses through the Poppy Project.
  • Making safe houses available to teenaged trafficked women.
  • Setting up a telephone helpline for victims of trafficking
  • Ratifying the European Convention on Action against trafficking in Human Beings (which Labour has so far not done, due to fears it might encourage immigration (!) but which Labour has said it will ratify by the end of 2008) .

Now this isn’t a manifesto at this stage, and we have no idea how many of these proposals will find their way into the next election manifesto. They will have to jostle for place and be reconciled with number of other policies and spending plans which may be contradictory. Also, you know, they’ll need to get past the Evil Tory Bigot old guard (oops I did it again!). But as a statement of intent at this stage I can find far more that I like about this document than I don’t like. Which, to prove our reader’s point I suppose, rather surprises me.

You can find the full document here.