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Do our Conservative feminists give a hoot about the less well-off?


MORE news on the sorry state of Conservative politics. Last week, Fleur Butler, chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation, and Ella Robertson, chair of Young Conservative Women, asked Tory leadership candidates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt questions on selected ‘women’s issues’. These included sex and relationships lessons in schools, reducing carbon emissions, the gender pay gap, period poverty, and the high cost of childcare. (You guessed ’em.)

Afterwards Butler and Robertson concluded: ‘Both candidates showed a solid understanding of issues affecting women and committed to take action to tackle gender inequality in politics, in the workplace and in society. Whoever the next Prime Minister will be, both men have shown that the Conservative Party is a modern, feminist organisation which is committed to equality.’

We readers have no idea what this last sentence means. Is the Conservative Party committed to moral equality, equality of opportunity, equality of outcome? One of these would be supported by libertarians, another in varying degrees by conservatives and liberals, the third by those with totalitarian tendencies. What Butler and Robertson believe the Conservative Party support, we have no idea.

The two women describe the Conservative Party as ‘a modern, feminist organisation’. This is surely poor marketing, given that the majority of people in the UK do not describe themselves as feminists. There is also a striking gap between the attitudes of wealthier and lower-income people. In the so-called ABC1 social grade (managerial, administrative, professional occupations), nearly one in three described themselves as feminists. But only one in five do from the C2DE grade (manual workers, state pensioners, casual workers, and the unemployed). If the Conservative Party is serious about reaching out to the latter group, traditionally more likely to vote Labour, is the ‘modern feminist’ positioning wise? Or perhaps the Conservatives’ goal, now shared with Labour, is to leave an ever wider space to capture for the Brexit Party, who certainly won’t be complaining.

All would be forgiven if the glib headlines disguised high quality, recognisably conservative discussion behind the scenes. To test this out I watched the question-answer session on childcare which you can find here.

It should be noted first that UK childcare provision is some of the most expensive and heavily regulated in the world. There would be quick wins for a Conservative government who cared.

According to the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank, the UK has one of the highest staff-to-child ratio requirements in Europe. For example we (and Ireland) require one adult for every three children under one year of age, whereas other European nations allow 4-5, 6-7, 8-10, or even ‘no ratio’. 

Even in nurseries, staff must have good grades in GCSE English and maths. Commenting on this to the BBC, a Ms Medcalf said: ‘I strongly feel, and this is backed up by experience, that the GCSE requirement, especially in maths, is a huge barrier for many wonderful staff entering the profession, and they become unemployable, which is crazy.’

All childcare providers except for nannies working in private homes must comply with rigorous ‘Early Years Foundation Stage’ requirements. The Institute of Economic Affairs wrote of this: ‘The EYFS is unusual – possibly unique – internationally in that it is mandatory for children below the age of compulsory education, and applies to providers which may be entirely privately funded. Critics have attacked it as overly prescriptive, costly, potentially harmful to children’s development and as a breach of parents’ rights to have children educated in line with their own preferences.’ This requirement has particularly hurt childminders – traditionally the preferred choice for mothers after their own mothers or family members – who tend to come from less well-off backgrounds and provide care for children from less well-off backgrounds. Their reasons for leaving this over-regulated and increasingly inflexible profession are set out here.

If the government really cares about fighting ‘burning injustices’ the most important of the above, in my view, would be to remove the GCSE requirements for nursery staff and allow employers to make their own decisions about aptitude suitability. I wonder what the Conservative government expects young people to do who do not pass exams, but who may be kind, caring, compassionate, gentle, strong, brave, determined, thoughtful . . . and who are the moral equals of us all. Are they all meant to work in call centres? Check-outs? Uber?

So what did our Conservative Women ask and what kind of responses did they winkle from our potential leaders?

One question was: ‘The great disaster for women economically is when family meets work. Our childcare system is the most expensive in the world and highly complicated. What would you do to simplify it so that it makes sense to enter the workplace?’

Jeremy Hunt focused on his back story, about when he had his own kids. His thoughts on policy were: ‘I am a big supporter of doing what we can to help people with childcare costs . . . I would support anything we can do to simplify things.’

Boris Johnson knew more about the matter. He said: ‘People need to understand what childcare is available. They do have 30 hours of free childcare a week in principle. Everyone on Universal Credit should get 85 per cent of their childcare costs paid.’ In terms of ideas: ‘One thing we tried to get going in London with some success was encouraging schools to set up breakfast clubs, to integrate childcare with primary education so that there is a place that parents can drop off their kids that’s local, that works, that people have the knowledge that their kids will be well looked after and allow them to work.’

That was it, folks. I don’t blame Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson for their platitudinous responses; after all they were not challenged to do more. But two Conservative women had a chance to put some serious policy options in front of the future Prime Minister. They had a chance to challenge damaging existing policies, to plant ideas for reform, to extract a commitment. Perhaps to plant a seed that would eventually help young women who didn’t get good grades and who are trapped in call centres to be able to move into a job they would love, with little children who would love them too. Perhaps, also, to talk about how to give mothers the choice of looking after their own babies for longer? It was a chance not taken.

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Caroline ffiske
Caroline ffiske
Caroline ffiske is a former adviser to the New Zealand Government, served two terms as a Conservative councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham and is currently a full-time mother. She tweets as @carolinefff

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