Last weekend I spoke alongside fellow north Londoners Jeremy Corbyn, Frank Dobson, David Lammy and Diane Abbott in support of Labour's candidate in Hornsey and Wood Green, Catherine West. You can see a video of part of my speech here: https://vimeo.com/125066844.
Catherine, a former leader of Islington council, is standing against Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone, who has repeatedly voted against her constituents' interests since her party went into coalition with the Tories – not least in voting for their disastrous Health and Social Care Act and opening the floodgates to privatisation of the NHS, despite her constituents (and me) pleading with her not to do so.
Lynne has done well for herself as part of the coalition government, including stints as a minister in three different departments including, for two years, in the Government Equalities Office. After five years of Tory/Lib Dem government, Lynne's constituents now have to choose whether she should be returned to Westminster to represent them for another five years.
As a constituency MP, there are unique opportunities to promote the interests of the people you represent when you hold ministerial office. Unfortunately, Lynne has failed to do that. After a term when she spent more than two years with the equalities brief, women in her constituency, in Islington and across the country are worse off than they were five years ago.
It's been clear for years now that the impact of the government's cuts has had a disproportionate impact on women. In fact, six out of every seven pounds saved through tax and welfare changes over the last five years have come from women's pockets.
Beginning with its first spending review in October 2010, the government made massive cuts to support for working mothers' child care costs. As of April 2011, the proportion of child care costs that could be claimed through working tax credits was cut to 70%. According to a report issued by Save the Children and the Daycare Trust, this meant an average loss of over £500 a year for the half million families who rely on this support.
And as subsidies have been cut, costs have risen. In Islington, the average cost of a part time nursery place – now £235 a week – has risen by a staggering 183% in the last five years. No wonder then that seven out of every ten women now cite the cost of child care as a reason for not going back to work after having children.
And as for the pay gap, it's just disgraceful that in the 21st century, and after 45 years of equal pay legislation, women still earn just 81p for every £1 a man earns. The last Labour government managed to cut the pay gap by a third; under this government the gap has reduced by an average of just 0.35% a year. At that rate women won't see equal pay until 2069.
All of this adds up to a pretty damning record that all women should consider, especially (but by no means only) if their MP has served as an equalities minister during this time. What makes it worse is the government's total complacency in the face of what can only be described as a pretty epic failure on the issues that matter to women. Last month in Prime Minister's Questions, Tory MP Mary Macleod said:
"The Prime Minister can be congratulated on making it happen for women: we have more women in work than ever before, more female-led businesses than ever before, more females on boards than ever before, and more child care than ever before".
Well, those are all wonderful things, but you have to ask yourself what good it does to have a few more women on corporate boards and in executive suites when so many thousands more are struggling to make ends meet in low paid, insecure work, or have been prevented from going back to work altogether because of the completely unaffordable cost of child care.
Labour's pink bus has drawn a lot of attention during the course of this year's campaign, the premise being that with so many more women than men not showing up to vote in elections, Labour needs to show women that there is an alternative to the status quo that has so badly neglected their needs.
We are a party that sees the challenges women face and offer solutions – whether it's an increase in the number of hours of free child care from 15 hours a week to 25, a guarantee of universal access to wraparound child care in schools, or a comprehensive review of equal pay legislation – while the Tories offer nothing but complacency. The fact that we haven't been in charge the last five years means women have fallen behind in terms of progress towards true equality. So it's more crucial in this election than it's ever been for women's voices to be heard on polling day.