Corbyn vs. Smith

Date Posted: Thursday 1st September 2016

How the Labour leadership candidates responded to 5 questions on gender equality

AusterityCampaignSocial CareSocial Infrastructure

A guest blog by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi 

This was originally published as a blog for the Huffington Post (September, 2016)

With less than a month to go until the ballot closes in the Labour leadership race, the two contenders have revealed how each would tackle gender inequality if elected. In response to questions from the Women’s Budget Group, a leading network of feminist economists, Owen Smith has promised to update the Equal Pay Act, scrap employment tribunal fees, spend an extra £60bn on the NHS, end tax breaks for private schools and spend the extra income on Sure Start centres. Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to introduce universal childcare, scrap academies, halt privatisation within the NHS, give teeth to the Equality and Human Rights Commission so it can better police the gender pay gap, and improve employment rights for care workers.

For decades, the Women’s Budget Group has argued that to end inequality and financial insecurity women, governments must invest in social infrastructure, create universal care services and conduct gender audits of policy decisions. Both Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn promise to lead a Labour party committed to social justice and equality, but what exactly does that mean in practice for women? The WBG sent five questions to both leaders, here’s what they said:

1) What will your priorities be for promoting women’s equality if/when you become Prime Minister?

Both candidates are aware of the fact women have paid for the majority of spending cuts made in the last six years, but of course gender inequality existed before this current period of austerity and any policy to tackle it must be systematic. To that end Owen Smith says he will focus on three things as leader:

  • Introduce a modern Equal Pay Act to close the gender pay gap
  • Tackle maternity discrimination and make employment more accessible, safe and fair for women employees
  • Increase the representation of women in the Labour Party by committing to making 50% of the shadow cabinet female, 50% of the four great offices of state being female and retaining all women shortlists until 50% of the parliamentary party are women

Jeremy Corbyn argues that his promise to end austerity will benefit women. Corbyn talks of a £500bn investment plan for “public transport, housing, high speed communications and energy” which he says “will benefit women as the biggest users of public transport and the worst hit by the housing crisis”. As well as increased spending, the current Labour leader wants to strengthen union rights and collective bargaining, spend more on education, the NHS, social care, local council services, improve access to justice, and support women and girls experiencing violence and abuse. Two concrete policies from these ideas include a plan for a proper living wage and an end to the public sector pay cap.

2) What tax and spending decisions would you make to reduce gender inequality in labour market opportunities, pensions and incomes over the life course?

Both candidates support long running campaigns against state pension inequalities, but neither expands on the aims of those campaigns or sets out how they plan to end pension inequality themselves. Corbyn promises to introduce universal childcare, deliver high quality apprenticeships with recruitment targets for underrepresented groups including women and ethnic minorities. He cites his broader goals – ending private sector involvement in the NHS and local schools – as key to improving public sector work conditions.

Smith focuses on some of the last two government’s changes to in-work benefits and promises to reverse all cuts, and reform universal credit where it is paid to one member of a household. He mentions a £200bn New Deal for physical and social infrastructure, which will include spending for education, healthcare and social care, as well as big ticket construction projects such as roads and buildings.

3) What will your strategy be to reduce the gender pay gap and universalise family friendly working conditions?

In recent years the prevalence of zero hour contracts and precarious, low paid part time work has gained wider public criticism, and both candidates promised to tackle this. Smith wants to bring in wage councils for sectors such as retail, hospitality and care to bargain for better conditions for workers. Corbyn also centres on the role of an in-work mediator to tackle precarity at work, emphasising the importance of union rights for all workers. Where there is discrepancy in pay between male and female staff, Smith argues that women must be able to hold employers to account and to that end promises to scrap employment tribunal fees.

Building on the last government’s plan to force some companies to publish data on their gender pay gap, Corbyn wants to make it compulsory for all companies to publish comprehensive data on pay for both part time and full time workers. To enforce this, he commits to extra funding for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, giving them the power to issue penalty notices and investigate companies that fail to comply.

4) What will you do to promote and fund investment in the social infrastructure that our country needs, specifically in its education, health and care systems?

For Corbyn, the answer to this question lies in his commitment to end austerity, which he believes will form the basis of a more equal and just society. Refocusing economic policy, so that spending on health, access to justice, education and social care take priority, will benefit women, he argues. And unionised workplaces will provide secure employment and better wages. Social investment is crucial for ending gender inequality and improving women’s lifelong financial security, however alongside any investment there must also be regular gender sensitive policy making.

Smith provides more detail but there is still a lack of specifics around gender. He outlines the need to spend on health, education and care to reverse the impact of austerity. The headline policy is an extra £60bn for the NHS over five years paid for by increased taxes and the reversal of existing tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. In addition, Smith, like Corbyn, promises to end the public sector pay freeze. In education spending, Smith will also use tax policy (an end to private school tax breaks) to invest, this time in Sure Start Centres. Since 2010, local government has seen cuts of more than 40% – Smith wants to increase spending to improve local services, which many women are reliant on.

5) How will you address the growing unmet need for high quality professional care for the infirm elderly, the long term sick or disabled, and for pre-school children? And how will you ensure that informal carers are given adequate support, both financially and socially?

The general view from both candidates appears to be that care – investment, better employment rights for care workers, quality childcare – is important, but what is missing is a vision for a society which treats care as a key industry. Corbyn is specific in his plan to improve conditions for care workers promising to end 15-minute visits, ban zero hour contracts and end the loopholes allowing workers to be paid less than minimum wage. Smith says his increased spending for the NHS, integrated social and health care and wage councils will tackle the care crisis.

Final thoughts

Corbyn’s responses to the WBG’s questions reflect deep thinking about the structural and social impact of economic policy on gender inequality, particularly the effects of George Osborne’s austerity programme. But while he understands the problems, Corbyn offers very little in the way of radical thinking on how to ensure a future Labour government puts gender equality at the heart of all policy making, regardless of the economic climate.

Smith provides several concrete policies, especially in employment and local services, that would contribute to a more gender equal society and greater financial security for women. While the detail Smith provides is welcome, when it comes to an overarching vision, there is less clarity; take his investment plan for instance, what proportion would be spent on social infrastructure? How committed is he to prioritising investment in social infrastructure?

The Women’s Budget Group believes to tackle gender inequality there must be a broader political discussion on pensions, the caring economy (including adult social care, unpaid and paid care work), and fiscal policy in general. We argue that a consideration of gender, as well as class, ethnicity, and disability, must be built into the policymaking process and there must be an imperative to actively work towards the reduction of inequalities.


By Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

Rebecca is a freelance journalist. She writes on social justice and immigration and her freelance work has been published by the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Washington Post, the New Internationalist, the Independent and others. As well as her journalism, Rebecca also edits reports for the Women’s Budget Group and is a member of the Management Committee