Liz Truss is trying to set up a hierarchy of suffering and turn back the clock on 40 years of equalities progress
Liz Truss, the minister for women and equalities (pictured), will "give no backing to those striving against discrimination and prejudice" writes Harriet Harman MP | PA Images
The only people who benefit from the argument about whether poverty, racism or sexism is worse are those who care about none of those things. As she has shown today, the minister for women and equalities is doing nothing to tackle inequality or discrimination
In a speech today at the Centre for Policy Studies, women and equalities Minister, Liz Truss, said we should “switch focus from race and gender” to poverty and geographical disparities. Race, sexuality and gender are supposedly “fashionable” issues under the dominance of “identity politics, loud lobby groups and the idea of lived experience”.
This signals an attack on the consensus which has been gaining ground over the last 40 years that regards all inequality and discrimination as bad. That consensus has seen great progress made, though there is still much further to go. Instead of seeking to tackle prejudice and discrimination irrespective of on what it is based, Liz Truss sows disunity amongst those who suffer from different forms of inequality and sets up a divisive hierarchy. No-one should have to put up with any sort of discrimination, prejudice or oppression, no matter what its cause. The only people who benefit from the argument about whether poverty, racism or sexism is worse are those who care about none of those things. Arguing that you are dealing with class discrimination is no basis to argue against tackling homophobia or disability discrimination. Especially when you aren’t dealing with class discrimination either. You can’t wave away racism against a black man on the grounds that it doesn’t matter because he’s middle class.
The fights for women’s equality and against poverty have always been the same
Setting the issue of poverty against sex discrimination is wrong in principle because both are bad. But also because women make up most of the low paid and most of those at risk of redundancy. Covid has made this, as so much else, clear. The greatest beneficiaries from the Equal Pay Act were low paid women. And it was women who got the biggest pay rise from the National Minimum Wage. The fights for women’s equality and against poverty have always been the same.
Liz Truss says that she wants to give individuals more control over their own lives. That is exactly what the right to work part time and greater maternity pay and leave does. And that needs to be extended. Race and sex discrimination robs people of exactly that self-determination to which all should be entitled on an equal footing. You cannot be free in your own life if you’re circumscribed by discrimination.
Discrimination, whether based on class or anything else, is bad for the individual, denying them their human rights. It’s bad for families when the man rules and the woman has no say. It is bad for society too. A society where people are oppressed and subjected to prejudice is not at ease with itself. It’s bad for the economy. Successful economies are those which draw on the talents of all their citizens irrespective of whether they are black or white, straight or gay, women or men.
The entrenched culture of discrimination is evident in the fact that eight out of 10 employers still pay their women employees less per hour than their men. That is exposed by the Equality Act pay transparency law which requires employers to publish their gender pay gap. You have to recognise that is discrimination – unless you are labouring under the belief that men are harder working, more committed and more intelligent than women. But you’ve got to do more than just see it, you’ve got to take action to change it.
The reality is that the quest to tackle inequality on the grounds of class, race or gender are different strands but all are the same cause. They all need government action to strip away the obstacles which hold people back and expose the discrimination which demeans them.
It was women Labour MPs who fought to put childcare on to the public policy agenda and make it important. Those who gained most from government support for childcare have been low income women and their families. And it is the low paid, particularly women, who’ll suffer most from this government’s public sector pay freeze.
It is deplorable, but telling, that our minister for women and equalities will be popular with all those who hate women’s rights and want no change in race or class inequality
The recognition that it is all the same cause was embodied in the very first clause of Labour’s Equality Act. Section 1 placed a duty on all public authorities to make every decision in a way that narrowed the gap between rich and poor. Inevitably, subsequent Tory governments have failed to implement it and it lies dormant on the statute book. The reality is that Liz Truss is no more likely to bring Section 1 into force than she is do anything else to tackle the poverty and class inequality which thrives under Tory governments.
Liz Truss was part of a generation of women who were able to get into parliament precisely because of the argument that Parliament needed more women and could not call itself representative when it was 97% men – as it was when I joined in 1982.
She will give no backing to those striving against discrimination and prejudice. She will legitimise those who want to turn the clock back and she will do nothing about tackling the class division either. It is deplorable, but telling, that our minister for women and equalities will be popular with all those who hate women’s rights and want no change in race or class inequality.
Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and Mother of the House