General election: Where the major parties stand on women’s issues

‘I think society in the main has moved on but Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bojo are in a bubble laughing at women,’ says Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Saturday 09 November 2019 21:28 GMT
What to watch out for in a pre-Christmas election

The forthcoming general election holds the power to determine more than whether Britain exits the European bloc next year – it will also have an impact on gender equality and women’s rights across the country.

The Independent gave each of the main political parties a chance to outline their policies on women’s issues ahead of releasing their manifestos.

Liberal Democrats

In Jo Swinson the Lib Dems have the only female leader among the major parties, while, after recent defections from the Tories and Labour, there are now as many female Liberal Democrat MPs as male.

Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrats spokesperson on home affairs, justice and women and equalities, said: “The difference between us and the other two parties is the fact we have a leader who has been active on gender issues for her entire career and puts them front and centre.

“She campaigned tirelessly on women’s issues for over a decade – on the gender pay gap and body issues. She campaigned for proxy voting in the house. She worked on equal leave paternity.”

Jardine, MP for Edinburgh West, said the Liberal Democrats were “the first to say” they got “things wrong” when they were in coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015.

She added: “We hold up our hands for the mistakes that we made. The U-turn on tuition fees pledge was a mistake”.

The MP also voiced frustration that December’s election had brought the progress of the landmark domestic abuse bill, which already faced delays after parliament was prorogued, to a standstill. Jardine said there were “significant changes” to the bill the Lib Dems were in favour of and argued it needed to provide protections for migrant women – as well as saying the party were in favour of the Istanbul Convention being ratified as quickly as possible.

As prime minister, David Cameron signed the pan-European convention tackling violence against women in 2012 but Britain is one of the only nations still yet to ratify it – meaning it is currently in limbo and the UK is not legally bound to follow it. Jardin said the Lib Dems did not want to see universal credit scrapped but wanted significant changes made to it.

She added: “Falling rape convictions need to be tackled. It worries me that women will stop reporting sexual assaults and rape. We want to see a society with a better gender balance and diversity in the workplace. In our manifesto, you will see what our commitment is to all of this.”

Swinson has previously said she was opposed to using affirmative action such as compulsory quotas to get more women in senior positions. The MP for East Dunbartonshire, who served as deputy leader for two years, argued in favour of building a statue of Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square in an article for The Mail on Sunday last year. She defended her stance by claiming the former British PM was able to “single-handedly transform the fortunes of women”.

Swinson, who has defended the role her party played in austerity policies under the coalition, wrote a book called Equal Power: And How You Can Make It Happen last year which The Irish Times compared to the “corporate feminism” of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In.​

Labour Party

Some 45 per cent of Labour MPs are women and Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is the first ever to have more women than men.

The key difference between Labour’s stance on women’s issues to other parties is the fact they have been strongly opposed to an austerity agenda, according to Dawn Butler, shadow women and equalities secretary.

The MP for Brent Central said women have been hardest hit by austerity measures – noting 86 per cent of cuts have “fallen on the shoulders of women”.

Butler said: “The Labour Party has a totally different mindset to the Lib Dems and Tories who maintain austerity was a price worth paying. We don’t believe the way people have suffered is a price worth paying. We don’t believe women turning to prostitution because of universal credit payments is a price worth paying.

“Boris Johnson’s words and actions speak for themselves in regards to women. He doesn’t have any particular respect for women, Johnson has called women ‘totty’. The Tories have very old-fashioned misogynistic views. They have not progressed or modernised. They are stuck in an archaic bubble. I think society in the main has moved on but Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bojo are in a bubble laughing at women, African Caribbean people, Asian people, minority ethnic people. It is quite evident that we are all an inconvenience to protect the 1 per cent.

“There is a huge difference in how Labour treats the women and equalities agenda to how the Tories do. Nearly all the equality legislation has come about under successive Labour governments.”

Butler said Labour would create a standalone women and equalities department headed by a secretary of state.

She hit out the fact that there have been nine ministers in the women and equalities role in the last decade, claiming it showed a lack of commitment to the issues.

She said Labour have pledged to ensure “flexible working” in the workplace which would massively benefit women, bring in equal paternity rights and address the gender pay gap.

Butler said Labour would also introduce legislation to ensure women are protected from “unnecessary and discriminatory dress codes” which require them to wear “certain heels and little black dresses”.

She said employees would be protected from third-party harassment under Labour – explaining the Tories and Lib Dems had scrapped this measure.

Butler used her speech at the Labour Party conference in September to announce large organisations would be forced to introduce a menopause workplace policy under a Labour government in an attempt to tackle the stigma which surrounds the menopause.

Labour, who has promised to scrap universal credit, last year pledged to expand the government’s 30 hours of free childcare programme to the parents of all two-, three- and four-year-olds.

Under plans unveiled by Labour earlier in the week, new mothers would be eligible to a full year of paid maternity leave and firms would be forced to provide flexible working by default.

Labour said the policy plans make up a raft of improvements that would bring forward a “step-change in how women are treated at work”.

The party has faced heavy criticism from inside and outside its own ranks for the fact there has never been a female Labour leader given it deems itself the party of equality.

In a recent interview with Alastair Campbell for GQ magazine, John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, said: “I’m still of the view now that whoever comes after Jeremy has got to be a woman. We’ve got to have a woman leader.”


The Conservative Party scores the poorest on gender representation of the major political parties with only about a fifth of its MPs women. However, the party has had two female prime ministers.

Helen Whately, Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent, insisted the party has been working “really hard” in the last two years to increase their “pipeline” of female candidates.

Whately, former vice chair of the Conservative Party for Women, said she hopes to see lots of “fresh female faces” representing constituencies after the imminent general election.

The politician said she was not able to reveal details from the manifesto and could not yet outline any policies, involving women, the party were committed to implementing.

But Whateley said she expected the domestic abuse bill to be returned to parliament under a Tory government but refused to say whether the landmark legislation would be amended to include protections for migrant women.

She argued Britain has had a stronger economy under the Conservative government and this has provided women with greater opportunities.

The politician defended Johnson, who has been accused of having a problem with women, and insisted the PM takes her and other women seriously.

“We should be careful about the caricature that people like to paint of him,” she added. “There may be things he has said in the past that he wouldn’t say now that he is prime minister.”

Johnson was fiercely criticised and accused of racism after comparing veiled Muslim women to letterboxes and bank robbers in a 2018 column for The Daily Telegraph. He was accused of sexism for joking that Malaysian women went to university to find husbands at the launch of the World Islamic Economic Forum back in 2013.

Whateley said: “If you look at our track record we have done huge amounts to support women and parents more broadly. We introduced the 30 hours of free childcare programme which benefits women. We are really aware that for working wage parents, childcare is a significant cost. We increased the national living wage and it is going up to £10.”

The flagship 30-hour free childcare offer has been accused of “entrenching disadvantage” due to failing to target the poorest families who require it most by cross-party MPs.

Whateley added: “We want to continue to tackle the gender pay gap – we already introduced groundbreaking legislation on transparency which we are leading the world on. Also women as much as men want to get Brexit resolved.”

David Cameron announced the government would make large firms reveal data on the gender pay gap among staff in July 2015 but Labour hit out at the government for being slow to take action on this issue.

Gloria De Piero, who was shadow secretary of state for women and equalities at the time, said it was “good news” ministers had “finally embraced pay transparency after shelving the Labour legislation for five years”.

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