It’s British Summer Time and due to climate change a record temperature of 40.2 degrees Celsius has just been recorded in the seventh circle of hell (sorry, I mean Heathrow airport in London), the cost of essentials is rising and there’s not much to get excited about unless you are one of the 180,000 Conservative party members who will decide on the best candidate for the job of Britain’s next prime minister.
Outgoing leader Boris Johnson was forced to resign by his Conservative party colleagues a few weeks ago due to what we might mildly describe as ongoing concerns about his relationship with the truth.
There are now two serious contenders left in the race for his job: former chancellor Rishi Sunak and current foreign secretary Liz Truss.
Currently the favourite to win, Truss’s presence in the final two means that for the third time in the United Kingdom’s history it looks likely that we will have a woman prime minister.
Representation matters, gender equality experts have always said. Visibility is key. "You can't be what you can't see." Should Truss win, young women will know that it is possible for a girl to grow up and become prime minister but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will grow up in a country that is less hostile to their gender.
As the long, looming legacy of Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s first woman leader who, in her 11 years as prime minister, promoted only one woman to her cabinet – reminds us almost daily, one woman’s ascendancy does not automatically equate to equality for all women.
Neither Sunak (or Rishi, as he likes to be known) nor Truss – who appeared to recreate an infamous photo of Thatcher driving a tank while on a visit to Estonia last year when rumblings surfaced of a secret WhatsApp group called Liz4Leader – is particularly good on gender equality, the most pressing aspect of which right now is economic.
You may have been a little distracted by the climate crisis lately so let’s take a moment to remember that there is also a cost of living crisis.
Consumer inflation, which means the price of essential goods and services such as food, fuel and energy, is currently at a 40-year peak of 9.1%. The last time inflation was this high, Thatcher was in power (wearing the pussy bow blouses also favoured by Truss) and we were in the middle of the Falklands War.
Women are particularly hard hit by the cost of living crisis because they earn less on average than men and are more likely to have caring responsibilities.
As the Women’s Budget Group, an independent organisation which works to highlight gendered economic injustice, noted in recent analysis, workers are currently facing a pay cut in real terms because wages are not increasing as fast as the price of essentials.
Public sector workers are seeing an even bigger deterioration of their salaries, with an estimated 4.2% pay cut after inflation is accounted for. Workers in some key public sectors such as education, who are mostly women, are seeing the biggest falls in pay.
Yet neither Truss nor Sunak has addressed this in any of their policy announcements as they attempt to win over that very influential group of 180,000.
Most people who are living in poverty, who can't afford to feed their kids, won't gain very much from tax cuts. The people who will gain will be people who are better off and pay more in tax.
Mary-Ann Stephenson, Women’s Budget Group
On the contrary, they have both promised tax cuts which, says Mary-Ann Stephenson, the director of the Women’s Budget Group, will "mostly benefit wealthy people".
Sunak has pledged to cut VAT on energy bills if he wins. Of the pair, Truss has been the most enthusiastic endorser of major tax cuts. She would like to scrap the proposed rise to national insurance (which is intended to pay for adult social care) and a planned rise in corporation tax, arguing that this will help people to save money.
Stephenson says it’s absurd that any potential prime minister would suggest cutting taxes to deal with the cost of living crisis.
"Most people who are living in poverty, who can't afford to feed their kids, won't gain very much from tax cuts," says Stephenson. "The people who will gain will be people who are better off and pay more in tax."
"What those people need right now is money in their pockets to pay their rent and buy food and pay them essential bills," Stephenson adds. "They also need a massive programme of home insulation to bring down energy bills. Really, that should have started at the beginning of this year."
Due to gas shortages caused by the war in Ukraine, annual energy bills are forecast to reach £3,850 by January 2023, according to consultants BFY. Instead of tax cuts, the Women’s Budget Group says that child benefit should be increased to £50 per week to support families with increasing costs. They would also like to see public sector salaries increase in line with inflation.
Now, what about the reproductive autonomy of women and people with uteruses? Abortion rights, in particular, are a bedrock of equality.
In 2019 Truss described herself as a "Destiny's Child feminist" who thinks that "women should be independent". Well, women can’t be independent without access to abortion which allows them to end unwanted or unviable pregnancies. And yet Truss has some troubling views on abortion which arguably are not getting as much attention as they ought to be.
Firstly, Truss has said nothing publicly about the US Supreme Court’s recent decision to restrict abortion across America. Secondly, though she voted to extend abortion rights to the people of Northern Ireland, she has largely abstained on abortion votes, which means she is not a vocal supporter of the right to abortion.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the British government just quietly removed commitments to abortion and sexual health rights from an international pact on freedom of belief and gender equality. References to repealing discriminatory laws that threaten women's "sexual and reproductive health and rights" and "bodily autonomy" have recently been removed from a statement published on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) website.
Truss, who as foreign secretary is responsible for that department, has been questioned about this by senior Conservative MP Caroline Nokes but has yet to address it publicly.
So far, regardless of their "feminist" proclamations, neither candidate has much to offer women and people with uteruses.
"Pay my own car and I pay my own bills," sang Beyoncé in "Independent Women Pt 1". Well, it's very difficult to do these very basic things if your rent and grocery shop is getting more expensive month on month while your wages are not going up.
If Truss does win, becoming Britain’s third woman prime minister, she may well prove the point that representation is not, in fact, everything. One woman’s success is not necessarily a boon for all women. Visibility in and of itself does not change the status quo. Destiny's Child fan or not, a woman in a pussy bow blouse who is not prepared to address economic inequality, the cost of housing, the cost of childcare or access to abortion is not a feminist.