First published: February 1998
Only eight Labour women MPs voted against the attacks on lone parent benefits, with a handful of others conspicuously abstaining. Despite more than 90 MPs signing the parliamentary motion against the proposals tabled by Audrey Wise MP, outbursts of anger at meetings of the PLP addressed by Harriet Harman, protests and vocal opposition from women Labour Party members and lone parent organisations – even Glenys Kinnock MEP added her name to a petition and letter against the proposals – the new batch of Labour women MPs were largely noticeable by their absence. Of 97 MPs who, by 2 December, had signed Audrey Wise’s Early Day Motion, only 9 were Labour women, and of these only 2 were from the batch of women MPs elected for the first time in May 1997.
There is no clearer test that these women MPs could have failed than this one, involving the fate of the poorest women, and children, in society. Ninety per cent of lone parent families are headed by women. The proposals will have a racist impact, since black women are disproportionately represented as lone mothers. Removal of lone parent benefits will thus also deepen the disproportionate representation of black women and children among the poorest in society.
The women who voted to cut lone mothers’ incomes did not, however, negate the Labour Women’s Action Committee’s fight for women’s representation. On the contrary, they underlined LWAC’s argument that women’s representation has to be backed by accountability to women collectively organised. As was pointed out after the general election, LWAC did not fight for more women MPs in order to adorn the green benches of the House of Commons. The actions of Labour’s women MPs is connected to the fact that in the period running up to the May 1997 election the Labour Party’s policy of women-only shortlists, now completely abandoned by the leadership, was manipulated to ensure the selection of women as close as possible to the Blair leadership.
The coincidence of policies which will ratchet down the living standards of the poorest women with some women MPs prominently supporting these policies also highlights why the Labour leadership has chosen this moment to try to put the final nail in the coffin of Labour’s women’s organisation. As of a decision of the October meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee, policy-making women’s conferences have been abolished and will henceforth only consist of ‘training’.
The Labour government’s attacks on women, of which lone parent benefits will be added to by others such as a low national minimum wage, cuts in disability benefits and possibly even abolition of statutory maternity pay and the introduction of charges for the contraceptive pill, will inevitably provoke political opposition from women. Preventing this from translating into pressure within the Labour Party requires ending the mechanisms whereby women can influence policy and can have some control over which women MPs represent them.
Such measures are well underway. The impact of the opposition to cutting lone parent benefits is, however, a huge boost to those women organising to resist this assault, retain the key political lessons of struggle for women’s self-organisation and representation and ensure there is the most effective continuing political organisation by women.
Those Labour women MPs who have sided with this attack have done so in the assumption that they will not be affected, that somehow women like themselves will be able to make continued progress. Despicable as this is, it is also wrong. The impact of the attack on lone parents will not be confined simply to lone parents, although they will suffer most and immediately. The steady destruction of the welfare state and the ratcheting down of the conditions of employment for women and in turn for the entire working class has implications for the whole position of women in society. The welfare state, together with widened employment opportunities, higher pay levels and greater access to education propelled the social and political advance of women in the post-war period. This dismantling of the welfare state and driving down of women’s position in the labour market is the engine house for the exact opposite process.
Lone parent benefit – What the cuts will mean
The abolition of the lone parent rate of Child Benefit will mean that new lone parent claimants will get £6.05 a week less than current claimants. This cut reveals ‘welfare to work’ as mere rhetoric: Child Benefit is an in-work benefit. A lone parent who finds a low-paid job will no longer have the incentive of knowing her income would be added to by Child Benefit and she will know that if she lost her job – very likely in the current labour market – and again needs to claim benefit, her Income Support will be lower because she will be a ‘new claimant’ and thus entitled to less money than before she became employed. Cuts in Council Tax and Housing Benefits for lone parents, to begin in April 1998, will also mainly affect lone parents in work.
The cuts in Income Support – agreed in tandem with the Social Security Bill but by regulation, that is, without even a vote on the floor of the House of Commons – will mean that after April 1998 a new lone parent with one child, for example, will receive £78.70 instead of £83.40.
Ending benefits for new lone parents comes on top of the fact that the government has chosen to maintain the freeze in existing lone parent benefits announced by the Tory government. Lone parent benefit is to be allowed to fall in value until the equivalent benefit paid to two parent families increases to reach the same level as that paid to lone parents, indicating that the Labour government has accepted Peter Lilley’s false claim – when introducing these proposals last year – that single parents face no extra costs compared to two parent families.
Already two thirds of lone parent families live on or below the poverty line. The average income of a lone parent family is just over a third that of a two parent family. Three-quarters of lone parents with dependent children have no savings at all. With black women disproportionately represented as lone mothers, the policy will widen the inequality gap between black and white.
These statistics add up to hard choices for single mothers: single mothers are 14 times more likely than mothers in a two parent household to go without food to meet their children’s needs. Abolishing lone parent benefits, which reflected some acknowledgement of the greater costs facing single parents, will push them and their children more surely into poverty.