Progressive London Conference report – The new Mayor and women in London

In this guest post, Orlanda Ward reports on the Women in London panel at the recent Progressive London conference

While some of us might love Boris Johnson’s floppy hair and comic persona, can London’s women really leave their best interests in the hands of a man whose party included a money-off voucher for a lap-dance club in their conference pack?

This Saturday I popped down to the Progressive London Conference to hear the views of:

Finn Mackay, Founder of the London Feminist Network, Jess McCabe, Editor the F-Word; Bell Ribeiro-Addy; NUS Black Students’ Officer and Anne Kane, Chair of Abortion Rights. The group met for a panel discussion entitled Women in London. The event was chaired by Anni Marjoram, a long-time advocate of women’s rights and former Mayor’s adviser on women.

When Boris Johnson ousted Ken Livingstone as London Mayor, Majoram too was removed from office as Johnson decided to scrap the post.

She’d spent the last few years advising on the mayor’s strategy for improving the lot of women living and working in the capital. During his term in office, Livingstone demonstrated real political commitment to making women’s safety a cross-cutting priority and implemented integrated policies across a wide range of services, she said. The aim was to send the message to all women, that their issues were not being sidelined.

Marjoram herself was a powerful force in tackling discriminatory cultures in a range of services. “You have to be in the room,” she warned, stressing the importance of constant vigilance and scrutiny to ensure that so-called ‘women’s issues’ continue to be taken seriously. Her record speaks for itself: during Livingstone’s reign, domestic violence murders in the capital dropped by a staggering 57%, despite not a word from the press on the issue.

Following his departure and Marjoram’s subsequent redundancy, far fewer women hold senior positions in the mayoral office and much of the work to combat domestic violence has been scrapped. These represent just two examples of the many ways in which women’s interests and representation appear to have been shunted to the sidelines following the change of administration.

While Johnson has appointed distinguished Professor Liz Kelly to contribute to the fight against domestic violence, drafting a strategy on violence against women, Marjoram is concerned that the lack of political will to prioritise this issue will lead to a lack of the implementation, enforcement, scrutiny and sanctions necessary for genuine results.

With a documented rise in cases of domestic violence across the city since Boris came to office, this shift has been “literally over the bodies of women and children”, she argued.

While the new mayor may not have got off to an unimpressive start, women’s groups across the capital continue to make a difference. Panelist Finn Mackay founded the London Feminist Network five years ago and now heads London’s premier feminist group, boasting seven hundred members.

The group has revived Reclaim the Night marches, making them a continuous fixture on the calendar for women’s groups. Meanwhile, it has cooperated with Object in campaigns against pornography and prostitution. The LFN was also present at last year’s Million Women Rise march, campaigning against violence against women in all its forms, which will be repeated again on March 7th.

Mackay is confident that “there is a resurgence happening within the women’s movement – and not before time.” However, she is also concerned by the “tragic losses” resulting from Johnsons funding cuts across the spectrum of project-based initiatives to support women and children.

She warned that despite renewed commitment to activism from a rising generation of feminists, she also detected, “an ongoing backlash against feminism”. Electoral victory for the Conservative Party seems ever more imminent. At a recent Tory women’s group summit on prostitution, Mackay bore witness to the commitment to free market principles which allows the group to maintain a bluntly transactional view of the sex trade.

With a probable political shift to the right and worsening economic conditions looming, Mackay has mixed views about the future: “In these times the rights of the oppressed are usually the first to go, yet this can be a time for optimism.” One of the LFN’s aims is to make “London a leading light in the feminist movement.”

Bell Ribeiro-Addy is focused on challenging inequality in education and increasing the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the student movement. Sadly she “still sees attacks on women within the group”.

Ribeiro-Addy is particularly alarmed by the fact that though women make up the majority of the undergraduate student body, they drop sharply as a proportion of postgraduate students and are significantly less likely to receive funding than their male counterparts.

“Black female students are at the very bottom of the food chain.” On the political front, there are only fifteen black and ethnic minority MP’s in the House of Commons, only two of which are women. She has also seen a recent decrease in the number of black female councilors. “We must challenge racism within the sisterhood,” she asserted. She called white women to respect diversity within the feminist movement, pointing in particular to the contradiction in asserting women’s right to choose, while condemning those who choose to wear the hijab. “It is really important that we are sending out the message that feminism is not dead, but at the same time it has to be a completely inclusive movement.”

Jess McCabe will of course be well known to readers of this blog, as the editor of The F-Word. “The current mayor simply doesn’t have an agenda on women at all,” she feared. Johnson made repeated campaign promises to fund four much needed rape crisis centres across the capital. Yet since his instatement, proposed funding has been cut from £750,000 to just £233,000. This is further complicated by the fact that his mention of “rape crisis” was very much a red herring, said Marjoram, as majority of provision of relevant services in London is provided by three world-class “haven’s” which are jointly funded.

Meanwhile, the pay gap for women in London is higher than the rest of the country, at 23%. Furthermore, McCabe pointed out, the four deputy mayors are all white men. “He’s managed to make the senior levels of London government less representative, not more, and demonstrate a complete absence of concern about any of the issues facing women in London.” Though many of these are likely to be tough to tackle, “we must at least try”, she argued.

Anne Kane meanwhile, is “concerned at the way feminist-sounding arguments have been used to attack multiculturalism.” “If we go down the road that feminism has in some other Northern European movements then there is no future in that,” she claimed, echoing the sentiments of Ribeiro-Addy.

Kane notes that in the context of shifting political tides “movements like abortion rights cannot afford to be agnostic on the political spectrum”. She sees both the mayor’s ambivalence and the votes on the recent Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill as warning signs. “Abortion is a touchstone issue for women.” During last year’s vote over whether to reduce the legal limit for abortion from 24 to 22 weeks, 344 MP’s voted to keep the status quo while 233 voted to reduce the limits. This demonstrates it wouldn’t take a great shift for further restriction to abortion law to come about.

She views the frustration over the current administration’s failure to resolve issues such as the gendered pay gap as very dangerous. “At the moment you have the conservatives running round, saying that they will take up all these issues.” But Johnson’s record shows that Tory campaign promises cannot be relied on. It was in this context that Kane argued the feminist movement must place itself explicitly on the political spectrum.

Marjoram summed up the meeting by urging women to “expose and shine the spotlight on these issues now that there has been some revelation about what is not happening and what has stopped happening.” She reminded the audience that policy for women in London, “has real consequences. It is not an academic exercise.” And while Boris remains in power, much remains to be done.