Emma Mckay is a volunteer for Progressive Women and attended the Lib Dem conference in a personal capacity. She is also a Public Policy Advisor for an academic research organisation. She tweets at @EmsMckay
As an ex-Lib Dem member and campaigner, I went to Brighton for the Sunday of the Lib Dem autumn conference hoping to find a reason to back the party once again. At a first glance, the conference agenda did not directly address women’s interests. Of the 20 policy motions to be discussed over 5 days, only 2 of them referenced women specifically. These motions covered the shortage of women entering and remaining in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics careers, and women in prison.
Even if there were multiple motions pertaining to women’s benefit, it would be easy to be sceptical about their worth. In the 2010 election 57 Liberal Democrat MPs were elected, and of those only 7 are women. One of those, Jo Swinson, whose Campaign for Body Image has burgeoned in the last few years, has been appointed Equalities Minister in the recent reshuffle, and is often named as a Lib Dem champion for women’s rights. But it is hard to ignore the fact that the Lib Dems, in the Coalition Government, have presided over cuts to public spending and changes to benefits which have undoubtedly hit women hard.
One of the Lib Dems’ 2010 manifesto policies that is coming into force is raising the personal tax allowance threshold to £10,000 by 2015. In 2012-13 it goes from £7,475 to £8,105 for those aged under 65. The Treasury estimates that this move will take 260,000 of the lowest paid workers, of whom 56% are women, out of income tax altogether. This sounds like a good policy, but a closer analysis from the Women’s Budget Group shows that men benefit more – in total £140 million more than women. It’s not that I’m against helping men, but the policy does not help the many women out of work, or for the roughly three million women who earn too little to pay tax.
Interestingly, when I spoke to Dr Miranda Whitehead, Chair of the Women’s Liberal Democrats, on Sunday, this was one of the policies she highlighted to me. The policy motion for the £10,000 tax threshold came from a WLD executive member who had the idea, worked it into a motion for conference and saw it become part of the Lib Dem manifesto for the 2010 election. Obviously, this is the great selling point of being a Liberal Democrat: conference still matters when it comes to forming party policy. A member can make a difference to the direction of the party.
A move that may increase WLD’s impact is their forthcoming merger with the Campaign for Gender Balance, who work to support, train and mentor women candidates within the party. CGB reported to conference that of the total number of approved candidates eligible to stand for Parliamentary elections, 27% were women (although no new candidates are confirmed yet). They also have an active programme to encourage and head hunt female candidates, and have been in contact with the Centre for Women and Democracy and the campaign coalition Counting Women In, who, like the Liberal Democrats, support electoral reform as a way of improving women’s representation in Parliament. The Diversity Engagement Group, in whose framework CGB exist, are setting up a working group to conduct Equality Impact Assessments during policy development, and seem to be making particular efforts to align the Lib Dem candidate selection process with the requirements of the Equalities Act 2010.
So there is plenty to be encouraged by, and it’s not surprising that as the party of electoral reform the Lib Dems are focusing on issues of representation. But even if their plans to improve the numbers of female MPs prove successful, will they be promoting and focusing on policies that are beneficial to women, such as tackling violence against women and girls, or improving access to affordable childcare? I’d love to see these issues on the table, then I might seriously consider coming back and re-joining the Lib Dems.
 For more, see Fawcett Society, The impact of austerity on women (2011) (http://fawcettsociety.org.uk/documents/The%20Impact%20of%20Austerity%20on%20Women%20-%2019th%20March%202012.pdf); Towers and Walby, Measuring the impact of cuts in public expenditure on the provision of services to prevent violence against women and girls (2012) (http://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/VAWG%20Full%20report.pdf)
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