What a long century this last year has been. A devastating global pandemic has caused the greatest public health crisis in living memory and an economic depression on a scale not seen since the 1930s. It feels like 100 years of history, of news, of politics, of life barely contained in 12 sagging and oversaturated months with absolutely no give left in them.
Cast your mind back to this time last year when it felt like things couldn’t possibly get any heavier. In the dark, cold hours of the morning of 13th December 2019, after what felt like a lifetime of listening to Boris Johnson repeat his sonorously sombre slogan "Get Brexit Done" over and over and over again until it sunk in, he fulfilled his lifelong dream to become "world king". Well, he came as close as he’s ever going to get, anyway. At the polls, he managed to unite the political opinion of a post-Brexit Britain – a country as fractious and volatile as any family mid-divorce. He secured not only the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987 but the biggest overall majority since Tony Blair won with a landslide in 2001.
Given that 80% of women aged 18 to 24 voted against Brexit in 2016, this Tory triumph rightly prompted concerns about what a Britain that had cast itself out of the European Union might look like under the leadership of a man who not only had a history of saying racially charged, sexist and homophobic things but reportedly once boasted that he "hadn’t had a wank for 20 years" because of the extent to which he cheated on his then-wife. What did it say about the state of our nation that he had won like this? That even constituencies in what’s known as Labour’s "red wall" across the Midlands and the north of England had voted Conservative?
In 2016, 80% of women aged 18 to 24 voted to remain in the European Union.
One year on, where has it left us? Well, as anyone who’s ever dabbled in manifesting knows, saying something is going to happen doesn’t necessarily mean that it will. Brexit is still not really done. No Deal continues to loom on the horizon, where it has been, overshadowing our collective psyche, since 2016. And sadly, concerns about whether Boris could ever truly put women’s best interests front and centre continue to prove well-founded.
Nobody would blame you if you’re no longer looking at the news so, ICYMI, this week the value of the pound slid as No Deal was predicted to be the most likely outcome of negotiations at the end of this year. We have long known that Brexit, particularly No Deal, could plunge the UK into a recession. Given that we are now already in one because of coronavirus there is very real cause for concern, particularly for women. The Women’s Budget Group has explicitly cautioned that No Deal will hurt women, both socially and economically, the most.
This is because every economic analysis of us leaving Europe without a deal predicts serious economic downfall as investment ceases, inflation soars and exports become more expensive. If we have learned anything from almost 10 years of austerity it’s that when public money is tight, women – and particularly ethnic minority women – suffer most (see: domestic violence refuge closures). Estimates suggest that women shouldered 86% of austerity cuts due to the gendered division of labour, such as the fact that women are more likely than men to do low or unpaid care work.
And so, amid yet more uncertainty, the Women’s Budget Group’s warning is stark: "Cuts have already severely damaged the services that keep women safe. These services simply cannot take any more cuts and being severed from EU funding will hamper services even further. Between 2014 and 2020 the EU pledged £9.13 billion in Structural Funds to the UK, including to support women’s services. The Shared Prosperity Fund (announced by the government to replace the European Structural Funds after Brexit) misses the mark by £730 million."
In a big year for Boris Johnson – killer virus and the arrival of a new baby – it’s hard to forget that he put more energy into defending his now-departed advisor and Vote Leave high priest, Dominic Cummings, for breaking coronavirus lockdown rules by driving from London to Barnard Castle while the rest of the nation went without seeing their loved ones, than into discussing any of the above.
Do you remember the press conference Cummings gave to shore up his "defence"? Did you watch as an unelected government advisor schooled us all in what it takes to be a good parent during a national crisis (breaking lockdown by driving hundreds of miles to check that your eyes are working, apparently)?
If ever there had been an example of the enduring need for feminist politics, it was this. A wildly privileged, powerful and, it transpired, largely unaccountable white man told the country that it was okay that he had broken the rules imposed on Britain by the government he worked for because he was a "good father". In doing so he exploited a loophole in the rules – "the exceptional need for childcare" – which had actually been put in place to safeguard victims and survivors of domestic abuse.
Women are being more affected by the coronavirus recession globally. This has led to it being dubbed the 'shecession'.
This was egregious enough. But when you add the context that, according to the campaign group Pregnant then Screwed, working mothers shouldered the burden of nursery closures during the first lockdown, it’s truly a national scandal. The group says the government treated women as "sacrificial lambs" at a time when the country’s economy was contracting and believes that the added burden of childcare placed on them by the coronavirus rules contributed to almost half of female job losses.
Women without children haven’t fared much better. Young women’s finances have been hit particularly hard by the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis. This is for several reasons. Firstly, as the Resolution Foundation has noted, key workers are disproportionately likely to be female, with employed women more than twice as likely to be in this group as employed men. Secondly, as the Young Women’s Trust has pointed out, young women are likely to work in hospitality and retail – two industries which have been severely impacted – and were more likely to be struggling with basic outgoings such as housing costs prior to this crisis. This isn’t a problem that’s limited to Britain. Women are being more affected by the coronavirus recession globally. This has led to it being dubbed the "shecession". Yet our prime minister has completely failed to address it.
And so, as one year of life with Boris Johnson in charge draws to a close, the case for women’s economic equality has never felt more urgent. His government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis has been nothing short of shambolic, with U-turn after U-turn on crucial issues such as whether or not to implement mass testing, whether or not we should be wearing face masks, whether or not private landlords should be able to evict renters, whether the furlough scheme would be extended and the extension of free school meals. But surely the only thing worse than making the wrong decision and changing your mind is doing nothing at all. Boris Johnson's government has completely failed to address the needs of Britain’s 34 million women – leaving young women in particular overlooked, ignored and forced to shoulder the repercussions of leaving the EU, something they overwhelmingly voted against – and they aren’t even sorry.