So they’re off and running in the general election stakes. But for ordinary voters looking for a party to back there appear to be more and bigger obstacles than anything in the Grand National course.
All the main establishment parties seem to be in a race to the bottom in terms of the policy options they are presenting to voters. Rather than asking us how we would like to see our lives improved, we are being asked how far we want to see public services privatised and how many jobs should be cut.
Fundamental issues like the increasing wealth gap in British society; the continuing deterioration of public services; the attacks on pensions and the continuing cost of the occupation of Iraq will be painstakingly avoided by Labour, Liberal and Tories.
Blair had the cheek, when calling the election, to say that "the British people are the boss" and the ones who will make the choice. But if this were true then why hasn’t Blair listened to the majority who opposed the war and occupation of Iraq or the majority who want the rail industry to be renationalised and privatisation of public services to stop?
Blair wants your votes in this election but his real bosses after the election, as now, will be President Bush and international big business.
Most voters will increasingly see this as the ’no choice’ election with all main parties the same. For many of those who do eventually vote, they are likely to see it as a choice over which authoritarian liar you least want elected.
That is not to say that there are not big issues that people want addressed. It’s just that none of the main parties are addressing them. To reinterpret the Tories’ election slogan, none of the main parties are thinking what the voters are thinking; instead they tell us what the politicians feel we should be thinking.
In some areas voters will have a real choice where there will be Socialist Party and other socialist and anti-privatisation candidates. The Socialist Party is standing 16 candidates and will be fighting on issues that really matter to working people.
But even if you think this election gives you no choice in terms of which vote to cast, there is the choice of fighting against the capitalist system the establishment capitalist parties uphold.
After the election working-class people and the trade unions will increasingly come into collision with the pro-business agenda of whichever party wins.
The election campaign gives socialists a chance to promote the idea, in working-class communities and amongst trade unionists in particular, that the alternative of a new mass workers’ party, initiated by the trade unions, is urgently needed and can be built.
A socialist alternative for women
As the general election campaign gets under way, the established parties are pushing forward policies aimed at winning women’s votes. Jane James explains why these policies offer no solution and outlines the Socialist Party’s alternative for women.
New Labour recently launched its Ten-year Childcare Strategy which covers proposals on childcare and maternity pay. Labour’s most recent sound bites include "helping working families", "choice and flexibility" and "work-life balance". The Liberal Democrats have launched a Manifesto for Women while the Tories’ main foray into the world of women is to call for a rolling back of abortion rights.
New Labour in particular are worried about the fall in support from female voters.
In the 1997 general election 44% of women supported New Labour but only 36% are expected to this time.
Labour politicians say this fall in support is due to male politicians exuding a confrontational, macho approach. They have consequently decided to push more women ministers, such as Ruth Kelly, into the forefront of their election campaign.
Even the Greens believe that women will be attracted by presentation: "Our campaign materials have all been produced in an upbeat modern style. We expect it to be widely appealing, not least to women… a style and colours that would reflect the politics of listening and cooperation, not the politics of shouting and competition." says Caroline Lucas MEP.
Ordinary women and men are more interested in policies that will provide them with a decent standard of living than ’presentation’. Women’s support for Labour is falling because of the war against Iraq, poor public services and a recognition that women’s lives are just as difficult and unjust as ever.
More women than men have consistently opposed the war and do not trust Blair after he lied about the reasons for going to war. Labour does not have a good record on introducing policies that benefit ordinary women and men. They cut single parent benefit.
They abolished the student grant and introduced tuition fees. This has hit women particularly hard. Female students will take four times longer to pay back their student debt than their male counterparts because they will on average receive lower salaries once they start work.
In the introduction to Children Forward Not Back Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly state "we are more prosperous and our children have more opportunities than any previous generation."
Evidence indeed that they are completely out of touch with ordinary women and men.
Although women make up half of the workforce and are an essential part of the economy they still earn, on average, 20% less than male workers 30 years after the Equal Pay Act was introduced. Women workers predominate in low-paid, part-time jobs, face inadequate and expensive childcare as well as ongoing discrimination and sexual harassment at work. Many women will ask what difference Labour has made to their lives.
Life and work
The proportion of mothers in work rose from 57% in 1990 to 68% last year.
Labour’s flagship policies on women centre around their Ten Year Childcare Strategy which includes proposals to increase childcare and extend paid maternity leave.
While childcare issues affect all parents it is usually women who have to juggle their lives and jobs around limited and inadequate childcare. Therefore this is a crucial issue for mothers of young and school age children.
The key proposals are to increase paid maternity leave to nine months, provide more childcare and increase the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit, a benefit for the low paid. (see table for details)
The Socialist Party supports the right of all mothers to work if they so choose. But Labour’s proposals are not as sympathetic towards women’s needs as they first seem. At a Downing Street meeting last autumn, Gordon Brown and others discussed how to increase women’s productivity and Labour’s has consistently goaded single parents into work.
Getting more women into the workforce is good news for big business, as most women take up low paid jobs so creating bigger profits for the bosses.
Brown is adamant that much of the extra childcare facilities will be provided by the private sector so handing over large sums of public money to the already prosperous shareholders. Not much change here then.
When launching Labour’s Manifesto for Children Brown declared : "Now for under-fives care and child-care the best way forward is a mixed economy with voluntary, charitable and private providers working in partnership with local authorities and community groups."
In other words, big business can notch up some extra profits and the government can get some services on the cheap or for free.
Already childcare workers receive very low pay – the average pay being £8,000 a year and only £5,000 a year for childminders.
An extension of paid maternity leave is to be welcomed. But to allow women and men to take longer periods away from work to care for their babies maternity pay needs to be much higher.
A survey by USDAW (the shop workers’ union) showed that almost eight out of ten new mothers were forced back to work earlier than they wanted after having a baby because they could not afford to live on statutory maternity pay of £102 per week.
The Tories are now trying to outdo Labour by promising £50 a week to anyone eligible for childcare tax credits. This can be paid to friends or relatives who care for their children (under the current scheme money can only be spent on registered childcare.)
However, it would not come into effect until 2008/9 and the Tories are committed to cutting not expanding public spending.
Far more money than Labour has proposed would be needed to fund their proposals – just to provide school-based childcare it is estimated that an extra £1.4 billion a year for six years will be needed. Teacher Jane Nellist says that: "The state of most school buildings make it difficult to deliver the prime purpose of schools which is education, never mind additional facilities."
But the government states in its Children Forward Not Back: "Schools will be encouraged to extend their provision either on their own or in partnership with the private or voluntary sector." Current trends point to a looming ’black hole’ where government spending will grow faster than income.
Already in 2004 government spending was higher and tax receipts lower than expected. The next government will most likely have to cut back public spending or increase taxes or both. This makes it doubtful that many of these policies will be implemented.
The bosses are already gearing up to oppose some of these proposals. They are demanding that women must confirm the date they intend to return to work after maternity leave in advance. Many women are not sure when they want to or would find it possible to return to work so far in advance.
They are against shared leave for parents and do not agree with any extension of flexible working rights. Of course, big business gains from women returning to work but rarely pay anything towards the cost of childcare. In fact only 5% of employers provide any nursery places.
We support the right to flexible working hours. Many women accept part-time work which is low-paid in order to care for children or elderly or sick relatives but would prefer better jobs with hours to suit them. However, the trade unions would have to negotiate flexible hours carefully. They should not lead to women working even more unsocial hours (late at night for example) in order to make up their hours.
The real solution would be to fight for a shorter working week with no loss of pay and improved care for children, the elderly, disabled and ill. Both women and men lead ever more stressful lives spending less time with their families.
How can anyone trust a government that gave the green light to bosses to extend the working week, having refused to sign up to the EU directive limiting the working week to 48 hours?
Labour’s only offer to deal with the gap between women’s and men’s earnings is to set up a ’Women and work commission’ which will make ’recommendations’ within a year.
The government’s attacks on public-sector pensions will particularly affect women. Most public-sector workers are women who on average retire on much lower pensions than men due to having shorter working lives, part-time jobs and low pay. Pensions for women and men need to be improved not cut back.
The Liberal Democrats propose a ’Maternity Income Guarantee’ of £179 for the first six months, equal pensions for women, more childcare and no tuition or top-up fees.
However, the record of many Liberal Democrat and Green councillors is to vote for cuts and privatisation, attacking services which women in particular rely on.
The tax Credit system, whereby low-paid workers gain extra benefits, also assists big business by legitimising low pay.
Two-thirds of those earning the minimum wage (currently £4.85 an hour) are women. A significant increase in the minimum wage would therefore benefit millions of women workers. But the minimum wage will only rise to £5.05 in October and to £5.35 next year.
The Low Pay Commission’s proposal that 21 year-olds should get the full adult rate was rejected by the government. Sir Digby Jones, director of the bosses organisation the CBI, was relieved that the increase was so low and called it a "sensible rise" (sensible for big business anyway!)
Michael Howard is trying to appeal to Tory voters by attacking abortion rights.
He is calling for the time limit for terminations to be cut from 24 to 20 weeks. 87% of abortions take place before 13 weeks. What he is proposing would affect a very small but vulnerable number of women such as young women who do not realise that they are pregnant or are too scared to admit that they are, or older women mistaking pregnancy for the menopause. If the time limit were cut, these women could resort to unsafe and dangerous ’back street’ abortions. Leaders of the Catholic and Anglican churches support the Tories on this issue but of course want to see abortion completely banned.
We defend the right of women to choose when and whether to have children. Young men and women should have access to adequate advice regarding contraception and sexual relations. If women choose to have children they should be able to bring them up free from poverty.
Why women need socialism
The capitalist system is based on making huge profits by exploiting workers. In particular, the capitalists have exploited women’s second-class status in society and their traditional role as carers in the family in order to boost their profits.
Based on inequalities of power and wealth, capitalism reinforces outdated ideas about women. Many women still suffer discrimination and sexual harassment at work and college. Women’s confidence is undermined by pressure to achieve the impossible body image. A recent survey revealed that only 8% of young women are happy with their bodies.
One in four women experience domestic violence at some time in their lives. Young women aged between 16 and 24 are the most likely to experience violence from a partner or boyfriend.
The past achievements of women have been won by ordinary women and men struggling together against the bosses and governments. The right for women to vote, the struggle for equal pay for equal work in the 1970s and for free contraception and the right to abortion have all been won through bold campaigning, demonstrations and strikes.
In the last few years, women have been to the fore in strikes such as the nursery nurses in Scotland, airport check-in workers at Heathrow, teachers’ assistants and other public-sector workers. It is essential that women and men continue to struggle for better conditions and rights.
The resources exist to give everybody a decent standard of living and provide the services we need. But capitalism is about making profits for the few, not meeting the needs of ordinary people. It would be entirely possible, with the level of technology today, to work a two-day week with no loss of pay.
But this could only happen in a socialist society where production is based on need not profit.
Socialism is about ordinary women and men democratically controlling the decisions which affect our lives on a day-to-day basis. Socially owning and controlling resources would mean everyone could have access to decent jobs, housing, education, health and other services. Based on co-operation and equality, socialism would lay the basis for an end to poverty and all forms of discrimination, violence and oppression.
Our programme for women
Women at work
- A minimum wage of £8 an hour.
- A minimum income linked to the minimum wage for carers, students, pensioners and all those unable to work.
- Equal pay for work of equal value.
- Equal rights for part-time, temporary, agency and casual workers.
- Flexible working hours which suit the needs of women not the bosses.
- A shorter working week with no loss of pay.
- A network of good quality, flexible, publicly funded and provided childcare that is free and accessible to all parents who want it.
- A living wage and high-level training for all childcare workers.
- The right for mothers or fathers to stay at home to care for their children with an adequate income.
Health and reproductive rights
- A fully funded, publicly financed and provided NHS, free at the point of use and under democratic control.
- The right of women to choose when and whether to have children.
- The defence of abortion rights.
- Young people to have access to adequate advice regarding contraception and sexual relations.
- Discrimination and abuse
- Increased public funding of refuges and more facilities and services for women experiencing/fleeing domestic violence.
- An end to discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, sexuality, disablilty and all forms of prejudice.
None of the established parties have any real solutions to the key issues affecting ordinary women because they are tied into a system committed to profit not need.
The Socialist Party is standing candidates in a number of seats around the country where we will be putting forward our socialist alternative. We have a record of campaigning to defend and improve women’s rights.
Anyone interested in fighting for a better life for ordinary women and men should join the Socialist Party.
Standing for socialism
Women are very concerned about what Blair would call the work/life balance and what we would call the working day. I think the majority of women would like to work part time with full-time pay. And women who want to work full time, to be sure that they’re leaving their children in places with a high standard of care. None of those things are really being offered by the main parties because you can’t really resolve women’s problems without a complete overhaul of the economy.
And we’re the only party which is really saying that.
Nancy Taaffe, Socialist Party general election candidate, Walthamstow
Women are attacked by politicians for having abortions but they don’t provide what is necessary to bring up children. In Wythenshawe nurseries and facilities for disabled children are being closed. In Trafford Park a neonatal intensive care unit is being shut.
Socialism would mean that the entire responsibility for bringing up children would not just fall on the shoulders of women and families, the backup would be there from society as a whole. Women would be able to work if they wanted and spend time with their children. They would have a real choice which is impossible with the pressures and burdens of capitalism.
Lynn Worthington, Socialist Party general election candidate, Wythenshawe and Sale East
From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales