UK general elections : Has feminism deserted British politics?

The UK General elections are examining the feminist agenda of the Conservative and Labour parties, with the Conservatives focusing on reducing the glass ceiling and trans rights.

UK general elections : Has feminism deserted British politics?
Photo Source: By John Cameron, February 26th, 2010, via Unsplash

26-06-2024

Oona Carteron

Women’s Rights Researcher,

Global Human Rights Defence.

 

On the eve of the UK General elections scheduled to occur on July 4th, it is only fair to question the feminist agenda of the two main parties’ candidates, who collectively hold nearly half of the voting intentions. Although the conservative party’s track record on issues related to women’s rights is abysmal, the Labour party can’t pride themselves of holding an immaculate record either. Has the feminist cause truly deserted British politics ?

 

The UK has had three conservative female Prime Ministers running the country over the course of its history, from Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May to Liz Truss. However, this serves as the paramount example that women in the highest instances of power don’t necessarily equate with advancing women’s rights agenda. Indeed, the Tory strategy has focused on curtailing the glass ceiling, a matter not without its importance, but which affects only about 5 percent of the already most privileged women. After 14 years of consecutive rule, they have severely neglected women’s rights and needs, systematically threatening social services, failing to sufficiently fund key services aiming at tackling gender-based and domestic violence (1). Their imposition of harsh austerity measures and cuts to public services and social care, on which women are deeply reliant, have widened inequalities and severely degraded women’s living conditions. Furthermore, the Tory’s politics have been criticised for undermining the criminal justice system. Data from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has shown a significant drop in the number of rape cases being taken to court, with conviction rates plummeting. This data, instead of being a sign that rapes are less frequent, is rather an upsetting illustration of victims being denied their rights to justice (2).

 

The Conservatives' focus has rather been on trivial matters. Trailing by twenty points behind the Labour Party, they have taken the debate on a cultural war ground, intentionally putting trans rights at the centre of the debates (3). They have announced their intention to amend the Equality Act, changing the definition of sex to be strictly based on biological characteristics instead of recognising its multiplicity and upholding one’s right to self-identify. The logic behind this decision resides in the Tory’s determination to deny access to women’s bathrooms, prison cells and changing rooms to people who were not assigned with the female gender at birth, regardless of whether the sex change was legally recognised on the birth certificate (4). Surfing the waves of populist rhetoric, Rishi Sunak has further argued that addressing such confusion regarding sex and gender-identity was a matter of women and girls’ safety (5).

 

Although the Labour party is particularly progressive on a number of issues, notably on inclusivity and minority rights, many of its supporters have criticised its leader, Keir Starmer’s for his backpedalling, once again crystalised by discussions on gender identity. In a recent interview in the Times magazine, he stated that he has consistently advocated for safeguarding these same-sex spaces, a position that aligns with concerns about ensuring the safety and privacy of women, arguing “biological women’s spaces need to be protected”. This stands in stark contrast with his 2022 stance that “trans women are women” amidst debates about the Gender Recognition Act, an important milestone in advancing trans women’s rights (6). It seems Keir Starmer, just like many Labour politicians before him, has been trapped into the lobbying campaign of  frustrated middle-aged women who forced sex-based rights to the forefront of electoral debates. However, not all is lost as the Labour’s pledge to ban conversion therapy for all, including transgender people, is a strong component of its programme.

 

It seems that British politicians have lost track of the fact that feminism is inherently inclusive and equality cannot be achieved without fighting on an equal basis for women from minority groups, including LGBTQIA+ and trans women. Amidst the UK’s looming economic crisis following Brexit, British politics seem to have fallen into a rabbit hole that no amount of frivolous changing rooms politics distraction can get the politicians out of.

 

 

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