Corbyn’s equality pledges seem genuine. Will women vote for them? | Zoe Williams

I’m baffled by the ‘Labour women’s conference’, but I welcome all-female shortlists in parliament and a gender audit of party policy

Of course, to produce a document detailing 10 pledges to promote equality for women, and then number those pledges from one to 10, would have been a Blairite act. I can see that. But it still would have been helpful. When Jeremy Corbyn unveiled Equality for Women on Wednesday, he referred to the 10 general pledges he has made for a fairer future, and how they related to women, followed by 10 further policies that were specific to women.

If we accept – the data insists that we do – that any contraction of the state throws the burden of care back on to women, disproportionately if not exclusively, then most of Corbyn’s economic policies could be sold as policies for women, leaving aside for the time being whether or not women would, as a consequence, vote for them.

So what of the 10 further promises, which are more granular and specific. The first is all-women shortlists in parliament, expanding to a call for equal representation of women in all public offices. He doesn’t call for all-women shortlists at a wider level, but rather “gender-balanced” shortlists. All-female shortlists are a necessity. We have, by any reasonable measure, had time now to see how fast gender parity in parliament accelerates without them, and it doesn’t. The existence of Theresa May as the last person standing at the end of an infantile shootout does not – however hysterically it is claimed – provide evidence to the contrary.

Gender parity on public office shortlists, I’d file under “can’t do any harm”: the reasons for women failing to progress to the best-paid levels are more systemic than a simple sexist preference for men at the moment of selection. Like the BBC’s undertaking to have no more all-male panel shows, it may not solve the deeper problems but it is fun to watch them scamper about.

The second pledge – to “support an annual policymaking women’s conference as part of strengthening women’s voices within the Labour party” – I don’t understand. Is the policy to have a Labour women’s conference? Or to listen to the women’s conference? Or to make policy based on the conference, having made it a policy to have a conference? The wording is opaque and I strongly suspect that, whatever it means, it will entail first deselecting the current women and finding some others who agree with the men.

The promise to establish a women’s advisory board, to “ensure women are at the heart of our policies”, though, is perfectly sound: likewise, a gender audit of policies as they emerge. “Real parity for access to mental health services, including child and adolescent mental health services,” is a curious emphasis: surely it’s preferable to have mental health services that are humane and adequate, rather than mental health services whose inadequacies are fairly distributed between the sexes. However, I take it as read of Corbyn that he is calling for parity as well as, not instead of, decent provision for all in mental health.

I balk a bit at hearing homophobic bullying in schools framed as a women’s issue; at “sex education in schools that teaches consent and healthy relationships” becoming a women’s issue. Online abuse, Corbyn specifically acknowledges, per Shami Chakrabarti’s inquiry, is “often racist and homophobic in nature as well as misogynistic”, and yet it is still here as a plank of gender equality. Sexuality, relationships, sex, respect, abuse, consent – these are by definition things that affect us all, and the idea that women bear the brunt when they malfunction takes us to a predator/victim model of gender relations. Yet the ideas themselves are sound, and the pledge to properly fund services tackling violence against women is one that should always have been central to the Labour party.

Tucked in at the end is the determination to adhere to the United Nations high committee for refugees detention guidelines, and place peace and justice at the heart of foreign policy: in regular politics, these would sound like platitudes, statements with which it was impossible to disagree. Who doesn’t want to abide by international standards of humanity? Who pursues a foreign policy without citing peace and justice as their motives?

The inclusion of these points is there to highlight not that Jeremy Corbyn says anything different but that he means something different: I genuinely believe that Corbyn would close Yarl’s Wood, and I cannot say that of anybody else, senior or junior, except Caroline Lucas. I find it impossible to imagine Corbyn pursuing a foreign policy using peace as a cover for a resource grab, or justice as a veil for geopolitical influence.

And perhaps that echoes back as a statement that underpins all his promises to women, irrespective of their relevance or significance or plainness – “everybody says they want equality; I actually mean it”.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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