EU referendum campaign: hearing from women at last
Over the last week, a new group of voters has risen to some sort of prominence in the EU referendum campaign, despite previously being pretty much ignored in the coverage of the increasingly febrile debate. Nearly a century after we first got the vote in UK parliamentary elections, women started to be noticed in the referendum campaign.
Labour’s Harriet Harman made a speech last Friday, and the TUC launched a major report on how much women at work had to lose from a vote to leave the European Union. My colleague Sally Brett explained just how much women’s rights now depend on the EU, and a group of Labour’s women MPs spoke out about the domination of the campaign so far by men. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady co-authored a blog with fellow female trade union leader Eva Nordmark from TCO Sweden (in Swedish, too), ending:
“The interests of working people should be right at the heart of the debate over the referendum. Working women especially should engage and speak up, taking responsibility for the future of the country, for Europe and for their own rights and protections at work. And vote to remain.”
It’s not particularly surprising, given their past form, that UKIP and the right-wing Conservative Brexiteers have avoided addressing the treatment of women in EU law.
Godfrey Bloom may (we hope) have faded away with his remarks about cleaning behind the fridge, but the Leavers are still trotting out their concerns that rights for pregnant women and parental rights generally are a burden on business that should be reined in if not scrapped altogether. And there has been far too much coverage of Boris v Dave and Nigel v George in the referendum campaign to date: a boy’s school brawl rather than a sober assessment of the issues facing people – including women – at work.
Of course, EU protections for women workers go much further than caring responsibilities. Part-time workers are predominantly women, and their right to equal treatment is guaranteed by the EU. Equal pay was the campaign that made the Ford sewing machinists famous, but it was the European Union’s laws that eventually delivered them their equality.
As the Ford sewing machinists and their union demonstrated, these rules have not been gifted by some bountiful Brussels paternalism: we’ve had to fight hard to get these rights, and we still have work to do – such as extending parental rights and providing equal treatment for domestic workers. But as our expert legal advisor Michael Ford QC pointed out, UK courts often failed to enforce women’s rights, and we had to take case after case to the European Court of Justice to get those rights enforced.
Hopefully women’s concerns and voices will continue to be heard in the final four weeks of the referendum campaign. With women making up half the electorate, and a higher proportion of women telling pollsters they don’t know how they’ll vote (or admitting it, at least!), it is vital that the rest of the referendum campaign covers everyone’s interests, not just the Bullingdon boys…