A time of despair or a boon for progress?

The current political turbulence followed by the unexpected General Election result presents a vital opportunity to challenge the status quo in the name of social progress, argues Catherine Mayer.

I spent the morning of Donald Trump’s election in church, seeking comfort and finding little. Even without the coincidence of dates, Sarah’s funeral would have been tough. Tributes from friends and family recalled my stepsister’s extraordinary energy, her humour and her activism. She ran for parliament in 2015 while undergoing treatment for the cancer that would kill her the following year. She believed in transformational politics and human agency. By contrast, the scriptural readings that bracketed the eulogies promoted a doctrine of acceptance that I will never accept. For all Sarah’s religious faith, that wasn’t her bag either. She fought to live – and she fought to the end of her life to make life better for others. She detested Trump and the misogyny and racism he emboldened. She also campaigned, with a vigour that belied her failing health, against Brexit. We both feared that the process of disengaging from the European Union threatened not only profound economic and cultural damage but, through secondary legislation, the rolling back of essential rights and protections for women and minorities.

“Be glad that Sarah didn’t live to see this day,” said a well-meaning guest at her wake. I bit back an anguished retort: “But we
need her more than ever!” That sense has sharpened and especially as the UK’s snap election snapped back. Sarah would have spied in the spiralling turbulence a rare opportunity. She would have understood this moment for what it is: a fracturing of the status quo that despite the legacy of social progress enshrines, at its core, huge inequalities. Theresa May repeated the central mistake of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in presenting herself not as the face of change but as an avatar of business-as-usual. Stability only appeals to those who already have what they need – and most people do not. The following set of statistics is familiar: one per cent of the world’s population owns more than half of the world’s riches; the poorest half of the population owns just one per cent. There is far less awareness around the gendered nature of the divide. Women make up 40 per cent of the labour force but hold just one per cent of global capital.

Everywhere women are second-class citizens – at best. Many are doubly or triply disadvantaged by the intersections of factors such as race, class, age, sexuality and disability. A third of us will be subjected to a violent sexual attack in our lifetimes. All of us endure some level of harassment and the constant tinnitus hum of sexism. In the UK, we are – mostly – equal under the law, but laws alone do not create equality. Unconscious bias and its uglier sibling, conscious discrimination, hold sway, more often reinforced than challenged by a media culture that recognises only reductive female archetypes. As a result, everyone loses out: hemmed in from childhood by gendered expectations, locked into destructive modes of behaviour and ill-served by institutions that instead of benefiting from all the talent and perspectives available, draw from a small, stagnant pool.

We are so accustomed to these dysfunctions that many of us don’t see them. The cosmologist Stephen Hawking has a brain the size of a planet but recently hailed the “seismic shift” towards women in leadership. Including Theresa May – and there could be fewer days left in her premiership than the minutes it takes to read this book – there are just 15 female Presidents and Prime Ministers heading the world’s 144 full and partial democracies. The picture is similar across public service and private enterprise. Globally just 24 per cent of senior roles in business are held by women; 33 per cent of companies have no female representation at all in their upper levels. More FTSE 100 firms are led by men called John than by women of any name and around half of these firms have 15 per cent or fewer women on their executive committees, even though research clearly shows that gender-balanced companies report better outcomes, happier work forces, lower rates of absenteeism, greater attraction and retention of talent and improved bottom lines.

Excluding and sidelining women isn’t just bad business; it’s a bad business for everyone. As teenagers, Sarah and I believed gender equality was coming our way. As we grew older, we realised we’d have to push hard for progress. We didn’t always agree on the most effective ways to do that. Sarah was a passionate Liberal Democrat. In 2015 I co-founded the Women’s Equality Party, convinced then as now that the old parties would never resolve their own difficulties in valuing and promoting women, much less spearhead the drive for equality, unless pressured into doing so. I reasoned that by taking votes – and proving the electoral appeal of gender equality – our new party might inspire a benign version of the UKIP effect that saw the Conservatives and Labour respond to its rise not by attacking UKIP’s ideas but by stealing them. This theory has already proved correct. Sarah’s own party voted at its 2016 spring conference to adopt all-women shortlists. At our first elections in May of the same year, for the London mayoralty and Assembly, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, Women’s Equality Party candidates attracted more than 350,000 votes and our rivals suddenly discovered a keen interest in the policies we set out. Quite a few of these policies reappeared in the manifestos of the old parties during the June 2017 Westminster elections.

The voting systems for the devolved assemblies and Scottish Parliament allowed people to back us and still cast a ballot for another party too. By contrast Westminster’s first-past-the-post system enforces binary choices, favours incumbents, serves to exclude women and minority perspectives and can usually be relied on to deliver majority governments. Like May, it promises business-as-usual. The outcome of the snap elections – a hung Parliament and a more diverse one than ever before, with women winning just under a third of seats – speaks to the strength of the groundswell for real change. It also reflects Labour’s success under Jeremy Corbyn in rebranding his party as insurgent.

I’m sceptical about that rebranding, as Sarah was, not least because Labour’s rigid party structures and ossified cultures will inevitably combine to resist the shift Corbynism is meant to herald, just as they torpedoed the opportunities for electoral alliances that might well have delivered an outright victory to progressives. Nevertheless I share the optimism of Labour’s new voters. A deep disconnect between the tone-deaf old parties and voters and anger at remote and unaccountable elites led to Brexit and Trump, unleashing a spirit that prefers any change to no change at all.

The dangers are clear and present but so are the opportunities. Tiny Iceland rebuilt itself from the rubble of the 2008 financial crash as the world’s most gender-equal nation. Historically all the biggest leaps forward for women – enfranchisement, access to labour markets, far-reaching equality legislation – have occurred not during times of stability, but tumult. Populists and social conservatives aim to undo these advances but it is often the people who believe themselves friends and advocates of progress that most effectively slow its march, by maintaining systems designed to repel change.

Those systems are faltering. We could close our eyes and ears, let demagogues rule and regressive forces reign, or we could shape a better world, a better Europe, a better outcome than the hard Brexit that threatened us, a better UK, enriched, like the Nordic countries, by tapping into the potential of women.

Those riches are literal: PwC’s 2017 Women in Work Index estimates a boost to UK GDP of $248 billion if female employment rates matched Sweden’s. There would be additional and dramatic social benefits, most obviously for women but also for men. Studies show that men who are the sole breadwinners for their families suffer greater strains on their health and wellbeing. The reverse is also true. Nordic men are healthier and happier than their peers in more patriarchal cultures. Better living standards and a society more at ease with itself would be prize enough but there could be another dividend too, in the rebuilding of national identities and national pride around a new idea of British leadership: leading the way to gender equality.

We cannot avoid the turbulence. We must seize it.