“Women are bearing the brunt of austerity and the pandemic”

By Pamela Fitzpatrick

In 1875 Henry Broadhurst, Secretary of the Trades Union Congress Parliamentary Committee, stated that the aim of male trade unionists was to “bring about a condition… where their wives and daughters would be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition for livelihood against the great and strong men of the world.”

Women, throughout history, have been pivotal in leading and organising mass political movements yet their role has often been erased from the history books. From the Russian Revolution and Paris Commune to the strikes of the Matchstick, Dagenham and Grunwick workers, it is working class women who have so often been at the forefront of seismic social change.  Such uprisings have invariably emerged in response to poverty, inequality and injustice and often driven by the failures and corrupt practices of those in power.

It is estimated that some 14 million people in the UK now live in poverty. This level of poverty is not accidental but the product of an ideology pursued by an extreme right-wing government.  While poverty has soared, the Government has wasted billions issuing contracts to its Tory mates and has presided over some 150,000 deaths due to its incompetence in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Poverty, Philip Alston, said that ideological cuts to public services since 2010 have led to “tragic consequences.” He reports that the UK’s social safety net has been “deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos”.  He goes on to say: “The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed.” 

He concludes that Government policies have led to the “systematic immiseration (economic impoverishment)” of a significant part of the UK population, meaning they had continually put people further into poverty. He says that some observers might conclude that the Department for Work and Pensions had been tasked with “designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th Century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens.”

We are, it seems, moving backward to a time when working class lives are of little value, towards a support system so basic that it is more akin to that of the Victorian poor laws rather than the rights-based social security system we fought for. Those without money must rely on charity or the help of family and neighbours rather than the state   it is a world of the deserving and undeserving poor, who must accept what they are given rather than demand what they are entitled to.  Nothing personifies this parlous state more than the growth of the food bank industry. 

Repeated studies have shown the damage that is done to the dignity of those using food banks and that businesses benefit more from food banks than those receiving the food parcels. Supermarkets encourage shoppers to buy more to donate to food banks and use this as a marketing tool to promote their business.  Yet they continue to pay poverty pay and use zero hours contracts for their own staff.  

The Government has provided several million pounds to support the expansion of charitable surplus food redistribution.  We are one of the wealthiest economies in the world and the best we can do is to provide the people we have deprived of sufficient income a food parcel of leftovers.   At one fell swoop, we solve the nation’s guilt at the obscene food waste of the wealthy. Supermarkets make a healthy profit and Government is absolved of its responsibility to provide an adequate social security system.

Food bank Britain is dehumanising.  How often do we hear of food parcels being delivered to the ‘needy’ or the ‘vulnerable’?   The implication is it is the fault of the individual rather than a failing of the state.  How many of us would want to be described as such?  Those without food are not ‘needy’ and they are not poor by accident. 

The level of poverty we now see is deliberate: it is structured into the system.  It’s a system which allows for poverty wages, insecure work and a benefit system that has been dismantled while at the same time rents have soared and council housing decreased.

It is a foolish politician that does not heed the warning signs of history.  Every week we hear of another demonstration or another workplace strike.  The Government appears to recognise these early signs of a potential uprising, hence the introduction of draconian laws to prevent demonstrations. 

It is of course women who are bearing the brunt of austerity and the pandemic.  If ever there was a time for the voices of working-class women to be heard in the Labour Party, it is surely now.  The new National Women’s Committee offers a glimmer of hope that this might be possible.  We have an opportunity to make this a real vehicle for change. We desperately need a radical socialist agenda with a commitment not only to restore the cuts of the Tories but to improve our benefit system and public services.  We need a commitment to a living wage and homes which are genuinely affordable. 

Seeking to out-Tory the Tories has never been a sensible strategy, but at a time of crisis and soaring poverty such as now, it is unfathomable.  History has shown us what happens when our politicians are unable to provide the leadership necessary to put an end to the poverty, inequality and injustice.

As James Connolly said, “We believe in constitutional action in normal times; we believe in revolutionary action in exceptional times.  These are exceptional times.”

Pamela Fitzpatrick is a Labour Councillor in the London Borough of Harrow and a Grassroots Labour Women-backed candidate for the National Women’s Committee.

Grassroots Labour Women (#GLW5) are supporting the following candidates for the National Women’s Committee: Ekua Bayunu, Mandy Clare, Pamela Fitzpatrick, Chloe Hopkins, Tricia Duncan  and Momentum’s candidate Solma Ahmed, for the sixth place. 

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts