Conservatives: A New Approach To Women’s Issues

// 22 February 2008

Ann WiddecombeA reader recently wrote in to complain about anti-Tory bias on these pages. In particular it was in reference to an image used in my blog piece on the protests outside of the Ann Widdecombe anti-abortion roadshow, in which some women were holding a banner reading “Don’t let Tories roll back women’s rights”. I didn’t have a chance respond at the time although I meant to (sorry about that) so here it is, a little late.

In that particular piece I don’t think the image was unfair or out of context, since we were protesting a rally called by a high profile Conservative MP (albeit one who is about to retire). I don’t generally intend to display partisan bias, but it is fair to say I don’t consider myself a natural Tory. I have a special disdain for the type of Conservatives who manage to marry a belief in small government and a laissez-faire economic approach with an interventionist approach to people’s private and family lives, and in particular their sex lives. It’s always struck me as a fairly inconsistent set of values, to be honest. Libertarianism seems the more honest and coherent position than Conservatism in its traditional sense.

Eleanor LaingI’m nevertheless aware that there are those within the Conservative Party who have worked hard for women’s issues, and who do not adhere to nuclear-family church-going warm-beer-and-cricket Conservatism. Eleanor Laing springs most immediately to mind, having worked on women’s issues in parliament for some years and voted against her party for gay and transsexual rights. John Bercow

John Bercow addressed the Abortion Rights rally in parliament which preceded the protest, saying that since some people had brought up the issue of changing the law on abortion (i.e. by restricting access to it) that “those who want an abortion law fit for the 21st century should use the opportunity to create it”, and called for an end to the requirement for two doctor’s signatures. He has also cast rebel “no” votes in the Commons against requirements for parents of under-16s to be informed about contraceptive prescriptions and for mandatory pre-abortion counselling. So I think pro-women Tories can and demonstrably do exist, despite my general disdain for the party.

Theresa MayWith all that in mind, let’s have a look at the Conservative report, launched this week by Theresa May (Shadow Minister for Women) to provide “a new foundation for Conservative policy on women’s issues”.

The report opens by criticising Labour policy on women as having been too heavily based on legislation, and for treating ‘women’ as an homogeneous block. The Tory approach, by contrast, would focus on women as “thirty million individuals”. They are upfront about saying the Tory policy would be to pursue equality of opportunity, not outcome, which accords with Tory philosophy more generally. As Jess pointed out to me, this approach is at risk of understanding the structural and group dynamics of oppression against women. But those principles are really at the heart of Conservativism and unlikely to change, so let’s press on.

Much of the document is light on proposals, and restricts itself to talking around a number of women’s issues and presenting a range of evidence which implies ‘something needs to be done’ without saying much explicit about what or how. I guess you could say they’re aligning themselves with the issues. In particular they reject the oppression of women in the name of religion or culture (FGM, polygamy, honour killings etc = bad) and stress the importance of the role of women in international development, reconstruction and poverty relief. To be honest, a lot of stuff that is easy to say and hard to disagree with. That sounds snide, and isn’t meant to be, but there’s not much on any of the issues in the back end of the document that is concrete.

Up front there’s some stuff to get our teeth into. They criticize the Labour policy of trying to force single mothers into work, and for not providing adequate choice in childcare for those who do work. Their concrete proposals for women and work include:

  • Compulsory equal pay audits when an employer is found to have discriminated at an employment tribunal (EPAs are currently voluntary under Labour, who introduced the concept).
  • A “reasonableness test”; to be introduced for employment tribunals – currently an employer can furnish a “material reason” why someone is paid less than a colleague and a judge has no power to judge whether this is reasonable. This would change.
  • Extending flexible working rights to all parents of children under-18 (not just mothers) to try to correct the balance of gendered jobs, where women are ghettoised in flexible jobs which tend to be low paying.
  • Improve the quality of careers advice to girls in school, encouraging ambition and advising on the material impacts of the choices available to them.

Later on in the document – and here’s where I fell off my chair – they tackle rape, proposing:

  • “Stable, long term funding cycles for Rape Crisis centres” (currently struggling for funding under Labour).
  • Tackling societal attitudes towards rape by making “the teaching of sexual consent “a mandatory part of sex education”.
  • A review of rape sentencing.

The final issue of substance (in terms of explicit proposals) is human trafficking. The first proposals feel a bit more like the Tories of old, using this serious issue to push through what feels like an opportunist policy to toughen up border controls, establish a UK border police force and introduce mandatory separate interviews for women travelling with a man who is not a parent, guardian or husband. This rings my bell a bit. Does this mean that if I pass through customs with my boyfriend I’ll be subject to a full cavity search? Or only if I had an Eastern European accent? It’s an odd one. It gets more sensible, though, with proposals for:

  • More resources devoted to catching and prosecuting traffickers.
  • Increased funding for safe houses through the Poppy Project.
  • Making safe houses available to teenaged trafficked women.
  • Setting up a telephone helpline for victims of trafficking
  • Ratifying the European Convention on Action against trafficking in Human Beings (which Labour has so far not done, due to fears it might encourage immigration (!) but which Labour has said it will ratify by the end of 2008) .

Now this isn’t a manifesto at this stage, and we have no idea how many of these proposals will find their way into the next election manifesto. They will have to jostle for place and be reconciled with number of other policies and spending plans which may be contradictory. Also, you know, they’ll need to get past the Evil Tory Bigot old guard (oops I did it again!). But as a statement of intent at this stage I can find far more that I like about this document than I don’t like. Which, to prove our reader’s point I suppose, rather surprises me.

You can find the full document here.

Comments From You

Evie // Posted 22 February 2008 at 5:06 pm

A statment of intent is not the same as actual policies . . correction . .actual Funded policies.

Don’t hold your breath ladies.

Cara // Posted 22 February 2008 at 5:13 pm

Well done, Lynne. Anyone who accepts criticism deserves kudos in my book.

I too am surprised.

It’s a sad day when the Tories seem to be doing more for women than New Labour! Latent sexism among supposedly liberal males is endemic.

“Anything goes, even porn and prostitution” and particularly campaigning against sexist speech being seen as an attempt to “silence” and a threat to freedom of speech come to mind. “It’s a joke/ ironic, not sexist!” is another. Oh and “I’m a male feminist, and I’m going to tell you females how to be feminist”.

From so-called liberals.


Jess // Posted 22 February 2008 at 5:15 pm

Good stuff, Lynne. But:

“Compulsory equal pay audits when an employer is found to have discriminated at an employment tribunal (EPAs are currently voluntary under Labour, who introduced the concept).”

This is good, as far as it goes, but I was worried not to see anything about employers having to undergo these audits in other cases. You know the party is notorious for wanting to avoid seemingly any intervention in business affairs (“what do you mean, that factory is employing child labour? voluntary guidelines are the answer! must avoid red tape at all costs, what ho!”). So it’s good to see them go this far, but I worry this would create a situation where in order to trigger intervention and fair pay, an individual woman would have to go to tribunal over her wage packet.

Of course, lots of women are doing exactly this, but most pay inequality is hidden. All companies, or at least a random selection (as in tax audits) should undergo these pay audits, in my view.

Eleanor Laing is great though, and the document seemed pretty good on lots of issues. I’ve seen her speak at the Tory party conference a couple of years ago, and she definitely seemed to be aiming in the right direction, re: trafficking at least.

Lynne Miles // Posted 22 February 2008 at 5:39 pm

“I worry this would create a situation where in order to trigger intervention and fair pay, an individual woman would have to go to tribunal over her wage packet”.

Agreed, Jess, but the point they make is that women are currently going to employment tribunals for discrimination, winning, and the employer undergoes no further investigation. That this should be automatic in such a case strikes me as obvious. I’m strongly in favour of compulsory EPAs for large companies. I am more ambivalent about them for smaller companies (not in a “what ho!” way, but because there is a point at which compulsory paperwork becomes disproportionate for some small businesses. I am against pay discrimination in firms of all sizes, obviously).

Jess McCabe // Posted 22 February 2008 at 6:08 pm

Yep, and what the Tories propose is a good thing, I reakon – I just don’t think it goes far enough :)

The problem with restricting this kind of measure to large companies is that the massive majority of people are actually employed in small businesses. I guess it’s one of those difficult-to-balance things, but at least if there was some kind of threat (like a lottery system where your company might be randomly chosen to undergo a pay audit), it would be some incentive for small companies to think about these things…!

Lynne Miles // Posted 22 February 2008 at 6:11 pm

“Yep, and what the Tories propose is a good thing, I reakon”

did you feel a bit funny in your tummy when you typed that?!

Lynne Miles // Posted 22 February 2008 at 6:19 pm

“I’m a male feminist, and I’m going to tell you females how to be feminist” – Cara

Cara. You put me in mind of this cartoon, which I had stuck up above my desk for a while!

Helen // Posted 22 February 2008 at 9:36 pm

Unlike Lynne Miles, I am a natural Tory, but since moving house a few years ago I have been shocked at some of the views held by my current Conservative male MP. This MP told me he believes that defendants as well as victims should remain anonymous in rape cases; that a one week counselling and cooling-off period should be compulsory before an abortion is permitted, and that men should have a say in whether their partner has an abortion or not. In 2006, this MP introduced a Bill to outlaw abortion in almost all cases, just like in Northern Ireland. He is also against gay rights, and a few years ago embarrassed William Hague by backing racist remarks made by John Townend. What a guy eh?

Needless to say I won’t be voting Conservative again while this particular person remains the Tory candidate! (Can you guess who he is? – answer below)

Laurence Robertson, MP for Tewkesbury

Laura Woodhouse // Posted 23 February 2008 at 3:39 pm

Well it’s great that they’re thinking about these things, perhaps it will spur Labour on to making some changes. But, like Evie, I am massively sceptical about whether any of these policies would actually see the light of day, and I certainly wouldn’t vote Tory just to see if they did. There is no amount of money, cake or expensive French wine that could persuade me to turn blue and I really feel no need to apologise for any anti-Tory bias that may come out in my posts. As the sidebar discalimer makes clear, the posts reflect the opinions of the writer and no one else, so if people don’t like it they can go read the Torygraph instead… *shudders*

EBaeza Chavez // Posted 25 February 2008 at 12:20 am

I am deeply suspicious of this document, it seems such an about face. You have to ask yourself what kind of party allows people like Widdecombe & Laing to co-exist happily? What is their real position on issues? It seems to me, the Conservative are trying everything to become electable, rather like Labour in the early nineties, abandoning, on the face of it, their core beliefs in favour of a more vote friendly alternative. They are attempting to be all things to all people, and end up being none. See exhibit A, Cameron who has styled himself as “Blair-lite” just as the country has become well and truly sick of Blair and his ilk.

I am also suspicious of a would be prime minister who votes against extending paternity leave, while nonetheless taking the maximum amount of time off after his son Arthur was born. Interesting also, that they changed their logo to an oak tree, I wonder what it supposedly signifies– unwielding and stuck in the mud perhaps?

chem_fem // Posted 25 February 2008 at 10:41 pm

It also would seem that cameron wants to reduce our right to choose:

Typical, I certainly won’t be voting now (although it wasn’t looking likely any time soon anyway).

Laura // Posted 25 February 2008 at 11:27 pm

Now why doesn’t that surprise me…? Glad to see that Gordon Brown at least hasn’t been fooled by the pro-life lies on the foetal viability front:

“At the moment, the key organisations in the medical profession are not pressing for a review in this area.

“For example, both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have said they do not believe there is a case for changing the time limits for abortion.

“The government has no plans to change the law on abortion.”

Thanks for the link, chem_fem.

Cara // Posted 27 February 2008 at 10:46 am

Lynne Miles – thanks for the cartoon, made me chuckle

:-)and expresses what I meant perfectly.

I too am suspicious of the “New Tories”, whoever said they are just like New Labour in the 90s, is exactly right. I could not physically vote Tory of course. What I meant was that many so-called lefties are not innocent of sexism, not that anyone said that they were…guess they are the least worst option though. At least Gordon Brown does appear to believe in the right to choose.

Lynne Miles // Posted 27 February 2008 at 10:53 am

On the plus side … some Lib Dem strategist thinks if the Tories can win over women like me/us then the Lib Dems ought to start paying a whole lot more attention to women’s issues:

see here That would be very nice indeed!

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