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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.


  1. Mervyn Hyde says:

    Jess Philips is using that favourite tool of the right “populism” to score political points.

    I note she is keen to attack anyone on the left but is deathly silent about Tories policies on health, Poverty, and the economy if she had any credibility at all she would be in the forefront attacking the Tories on those issues, instead she plays the politics of bashing the left.

    This of course is in tune with dangerous rule changes being proposed to conference where people on the right can make personal judgements as to whether people have broken party rules or not.

    I believe the right are deliberately raising false flags in order to get pernicious rule changes into the rule book. Noting that in her case she is also vulnerable.

  2. David Pavett says:

    Phil B-C says that in the National Policy Forum documentation on industrial strategy and the economy section of the 2017 Manifesto “we don’t see any mention of women and gender inequality.

    In fact in the 2017 Manifesto section entitled Creating an economy that works for all we read

    Labour will turn this around. We will upgrade our economy, breaking down the barriers that hold too many of us back, and tackling the gender pay gap.

    In the section headed A fair deal at work we find Labour committed to

    Introduce a civil enforcement system to ensure compliance with gender pay auditing – so that all workers have fair access to employment and promotion opportunities and are treated fairly at work.

    Slightly more generally but with clear direct implications for women we also find

    Give equalities reps statutory rights – so they have time to protect workers from discrimination.

    When we move onto the NPF documentation on the economy the claim is even wider of the mark. There are eight mentions of gender issues specifically relating to women in the preamble to the Work, Pensions and Equalities report. In addition there many references to the need to protect women’s interests on a series of other issues such as pensions.

    The Economy, Business and Trade report points out that this year a new commission on Work, Pensions & Equality was created and gives reference to it as well as reiterating the Manifesto’s commitment to “Our 20-point plan” which

    committed us to, amongst other things, equal rights at work on day one …

    And note that this is in the context of a commitment to “gender-proof all policies and legislation”. There are many other explicit references to gender issues in the NPF document.

    It is fair enough that Phil B-C should look around for policies which have gender equality implications without explicitly dealing with gender but it is a pity that neither he nor, it seems, Jess Phillips have noticed the explicit commitments that the Manifesto and the NPF Annual Report contain.

    The suggestion that the Women’s Equality Party Manifesto somehow, even at a superficial level, does better on gender issues won’t, in my view, bear examination. I would like to see anyone try to make a case for that claim.

  3. Karl Stewart says:

    I still can’t understand how Gobshite Jess Phillips is still an MP after her death threat against Corbyn.

    It’s a disgrace that when members have been expelled for simply voting for another candidate before they even joined Labour, that this moron had absolutely no action taken against her for her threat to kill Corbyn.

    She should have been booted out immediately.

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