Overconfident men brought us Brexit. It’s not too late for women to fix it | Sophie Walker

The effects of leaving the EU will be particularly disastrous for women and the worse-off. WE has a different vision

An apocryphal McKinsey stat that’s often quoted suggests that women don’t apply for a job unless they have all the skills required, while men apply with about 60% of the necessary experience. As parliament heads for recess, I’ve never been more struck by the impact of overconfident men trading bluster for knowledge and honesty.

Two years after the EU referendum, the men who have dominated our Brexit debate – from Boris Johnson to Nigel Farage – have discounted evidence that campaign irregularities and outright lies skewed the referendum. They have offered the sketchiest of plans and winked away impact assessments and forecasts. But their bombast can no longer conceal the truth before us: that Brexit will harm those with least, to whom it promised the most. In the face of such contempt from Westminster, I am therefore asking Women’s Equality party (WE) members to reshape our position on Brexit at conference in September.

WE saw from the outset that the referendum was as much a vote on the establishment as it was on Brexit. So we campaigned for a feminist lens on whatever plan the end vote produced. WE understood that the European Union, though the source of key rights and protections for women, had form in excluding and marginalising too: female representation in the EU parliament is still only one-third and the institution is too focused on women who make it past structural barriers to the workplace, failing to protect those at the margins of ever freer market policies.

Yet WE also recognised the huge damage that could be caused to women by Brexit, and which would likely bring an economic shock, cuts to the public purse and renegotiation over workplace protections.

After the result, the government’s first deal was with the monstrous DUP to trade away reproductive rights in Northern Ireland for crunch votes in parliament. Martin Callanan, the Department for Exiting the European Union minister, advocated to scrap EU safeguards for workers and pregnant women. Politicians voted down our amendment to make sure parliament would scrutinise any rewriting of workers’ rights and equalities legislation.

The false binary the vote pretended to represent is clear: this was never a choice between the establishment and the people, but between the opinions of two sets of privileged men, each nostalgic for a world in which women know their place. The PM may say she has hold of the negotiations, but her grasp is as slippery as the glass cliff upon which her male peers have placed her while they wait to claim her job.

The Conservatives are in fact being steered by the European Research Group – a taxpayer-funded vehicle to do over taxpayers with the hardest possible Brexit – and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who says the World Trade Organisation model is nothing to be frightened of while he sets up EU-based investment funds. Their industrial strategy involves a bonfire of red tape – that convenient hyperbole for workers’ rights – and cuts to corporation tax and employers’ contributions. From “fuck business” to “fuck yeah, business” in one short step. The big short of Brexit night, when hedge funds cleaned up thanks to sterling’s shock fall, is likely nothing compared to the free-market free-for-all that awaits.

Labour’s industrial strategy meanwhile prizes the creation of working-class men’s jobs above all else. Jeremy Corbyn’s focus on manufacturing is, in 2018, a slap in the face to millions of people – disproportionately women – employed in the service, retail and health sectors, where jobs and pay are falling. Investment in workforce strategies and free childcare would boost jobs and productivity far more than a focus on dwindling industries where investment will only speed further automation. His disdain for “cheap labour” is a dismissal of poor women, abroad and at home.

The urgent need to do something different on our shores is emphasised by the arrival in Europe of Steve Bannon. “I would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven,” he told the Daily Beast, as he opened an office in Brussels to co-ordinate and fund Europe’s rightwing nationalist groups. It is shaming that Brexit is being held up to fascists as an example of what can be achieved as isolationism, protectionism and militarism take root around the world.

Yet there is another way; another chance. The real anti-establishment activists are heading for Brussels, where the extremes may be assembling but so too are the alternatives, supported by a voting system that enables new voices to win seats. WE is working with Sweden’s Feminist Initiative party, its leader, Gudrun Schyman, and Soraya Post (the first party member to be elected to the European parliament) to support their work to build a feminist bloc within Brussels alongside other developing feminist parties from Finland, Norway, Denmark and Spain.

In this scenario, the case for remain is now about the dynamic assertion of our liberty, of a chance to climb into the ring with rabble rousers, of transforming the EU project from grey bureaucracy to a bright arena where we might protect and – finally – extend women’s rights to the benefit of all. Feminists could unite against the hellish Brexit vision of the right and the myopic Brexit of the left. Trade negotiations could be reset with human rights on an equal footing with the rights of shareholders. Immigration policy could be reset with an understanding of the global pay and education gap that counts against migrant women. Peace could transcend the drive towards further militarisation.

I want to lead the way towards that option. Let’s not call it remain but rather “advance”: a third way out of this mess. Let’s build a movement of women and men from all corners and countries with the aim of equality and human rights for all.

At our party conference in September, our members will have the opportunity to decide whether WE back a people’s vote, and part of that debate will be considering the case for advance. It is fitting therefore that our conference will take place in Kettering – the same place from which Vote Leave launched its campaign. They may Brexit. But WE can fix it.

• Sophie Walker is the leader of the Women’s Equality party and a former Reuters journalist


Sophie Walker

The GuardianTramp

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