Monday 14 August 2017

On Labour's "Sexist" Industrial Strategy

When Jess Phillips speaks it rarely ends well. On this occasion, seemingly determined to ruffle as many feathers as possible, she is reported as saying that "left-wing men are the absolute worst" when it comes to sexism, and that Labour's industrial strategy is sexist. Challenged on this by Caroline Molloy, she said she really meant lefty men are merely the more annoying than the sexists of the right who parade their misogyny alongside their stupidity. Ah yes, she didn't mean to say left men are the worst, just like the time she bathed in the media attention after telling Diane Abbott to "fuck off". Or when she threatened to stab Jeremy Corbyn "in the front", or of accusing the Labour leader of "hating women". Now, I'm not about to dismiss Jess's experiences of sexism and mansplaining in the party. It happens and if you're a bloke who doubts it or doesn't see it, why not ask some women comrades? Sadly sexism is alive and well because Labour is not hermetically sealed off from the rest of society and is bound to reflect what happens in the social world. The point is not to let it lie. Here all men in the party have a duty to support women and challenge sexist attitudes. Remember sexism, like racism, is scabbing.

Where I am going to say Jess is wrong is on the "sexism" of Labour's economic programme. Of the industrial strategy, women are "entirely missing" as it's all about "men with shovels", she says. Let us examine the evidence. The documentation that has gone to the National Policy Forum says its key task is the creation of highly skilled, high waged, and high productivity jobs. This means focusing on skills via the introduction of a National Education Service for lifelong retraining and learning, more money in infrastructure investment, a more industrially active state that identifies and makes up for gaps created by market failure, better procurement practices, capping energy costs and investing, getting a good trade deal with Europe, and investing heavily in research. Looking at the economy section of our 2017 manifesto, the same sort of stuff is repeated. True enough, combing through both we don't see any mention of women and gender inequality and superficially it looks like a poor show versus, say, the Women's Equality Party. However, to suggest this is indicative of sexism in Labour's programme is a real failure of political imagination. Or cynical reasoning, depending on your view of Jess.

Take, for instance, the national education service. A lot of the Labour right don't like this idea because they would prefer to cling to tuition fees and, for some, too much education is a bad thing. Yet who would benefit most from this? Women would. If the job-destroying predictions of the coming wave of automation are realised, it is women who are going to be disproportionately affected. Clerical work, and particularly the low-paid and most repetitive sectors vulnerable to automation and obsolescence is going to hit them more than men. Therefore a new education service can help them retrain and relearn, just as it would for mums who take extended career breaks to look after their kids. It would be there to help them acquire new skills and knowledge or just to provide a refresh. In short, it gives more opportunities to women to lead the kinds of lives they want.

On procurement, Labour would expect companies vying for public sector contracts meet certain social criteria around wages, paying taxes, equal opportunities, workers' rights and trade unions. Think about the burgeoning care industry, which in local authority areas is largely outsourced after decades of privatisation. Care workers are expected to meet a client's care needs in a strictly allotted time frame before moving on to the next, pay is poor, and workers are often demotivated and cannot do a proper job. As you tend to find women in these roles, again, tell me who is going to benefit from changing the rules?

It goes on. Making life easier for small businesses would benefit women surging into self-employment. Tougher regulation of finance and more state intervention makes the economy less vulnerable to shocks, which benefits women who are more likely to be in casual work, and "insourcing" utilities and price controls means household budgets stretch further.

As we live in the 21st century and our society is increasingly characterised by immaterial labour - the production of knowledge, information, services, social relations, people - what is work and what is the economy is increasingly fuzzy. I don't expect Jess to be up on the leading edge of debates in radical and social theory, but I would have thought her experience working for domestic violence and sexual abuse services might have alerted her to the role women by and large play as 'affective labourers' doing emotional work for partners and children, and how important this work is for the reproduction of social life. Therefore, Labour's pledge to tackle violence in the home, to ensure women's refuges and rape crisis are properly funded (and cannot simply be turned off by central government, as has happened under the Tories), outlaw maternity discrimination at work and look at ways of making work more pregnancy-friendly, and lastly gender pay auditing are as much industrial strategy issues as rolling out superfast broadband and investing in renewable energy. The same applies for raising the minimum wage, protecting pensions, reworking social security and the NHS and introducing an integrated NHS/social services National Care Service. All are entirely central to an industrial strategy, and all are entirely central to improving the lot of women.

Could more be done? Yes. Labour needs to be more explicit about the intertwining of economic and social relationships, and that the former is only possible because of the social infrastructure that women, generally, have a greater role in providing and reproducing than men. Here the Women's Equality Party manifesto does a good job, even if some of its policies don't go far enough in my view. Though it is something worth looking at and learning from. That however does not mean Labour's industrial strategy is sexist considering the substantial contribution it would make to the material lot and provision of opportunities for women.

Sadly, this truth about Labour's economics does not matter for Jess Phillips. As someone with a talent for attracting the spotlight, Jess has constructed a media personality solely around a snide remark here or a "brave" intervention there against the party and its leadership. For all I know she might attack the Tories more venomously and vociferously, but there you have your problem - we just don't know. How she carries on is entirely up to her, of course. Just as it will be up to her constituency organisation whether they give Jess another four or five years come reselection time.


Mrs M said...

I agree Phil. The industrial strategy and 2017 manifesto - whilst not focusing on women's issues per se - highlight areas for improvement that would significantly impact women of working age. The lack of funding for adult education in general is a concern for me, but it's true to say that women who have taken career breaks to raise children or provide care for someone are significantly disadvantaged.

The ability to access learning with the aim of reskilling to improve employability or allow a change of career will become crucial should the anticipated automation of many industries occur; within the call centre community, for example, the "zero touch" approach is becoming increasingly common with voice recognition to allow you to complete transactions without speaking to an operator or using smartphone apps or websites to deal with order placement, fault reporting and billing queries. These clerical roles were historically held almost exclusively by women (although this is now changing), and clearly if automation removes the requirement to employ significant numbers of people there needs to be due consideration on what roles can be created elsewhere to absorb the displaced workforce - regardless of gender.

There's clearly scope for improvement but I would hope that the NPF helps the Party to further shape the economic and industrial strategies so that they're fit for purpose "for the many".

Phil said...


The manifesto was also a bit 'vote for us we will do these things for you' when Labour should really be thinking about how to use policy so people are empowered to make their own decisions. This clearly underlines the thinking behind the national education service, but ti was a bit disappointing not to see the same apply to public ownership. Still, give it time ...

Anonymous said...

Philips' comments reminds me of the argument that investment in infrastructure rather than childcare was effectively 'jobs for the boys'. This overlooks the difference between the time takes to build, say, a school (majority of male brickies?) versus the years it will be used to teach kids (majority of female teachers? girls studying STEM subjects and/or going to university?). If the cuts disproportionately affect women, then so will increases in public spending. Maybe Phillips forgot that in her rush to kick the leadership (again).

Baden said...

After watching her genuflecting to Jacob Rees Mogg regarding Theresa May being a woman of principle either she is a Manchurian Candidate Or a closet right winger.