Guest blog: Mainstream politics is out of touch with women's needs

18 May 2017

Ahead of the General Election, the Bar Council is publishing blogs from barristers who are standing for election. In the first of this series, barrister and mother of three Harini Iyengar says politics is out of touch with women's needs, which is why she is standing for election, but not for one of the mainstream parties. 

Harini Iyengar

In this snap general election, I'm compelled to raise my voice to campaign on women's equality, particularly in the debate on a hard Brexit. 

From protections for pregnant and part-time workers and equal pay rights, through to the state's obligations towards rape victims and the impact of international trade agreements on gender equality, women's human rights are at risk in a way which Britain hasn't seen since World War Two. Women bore the brunt of austerity cuts, with £86 out of every £100 saving coming directly from women's pockets. 

As the Women's Equality Party Parliamentary Candidate for Vauxhall, I'm continually receiving papers from a wide range of women's organisations educating me about obscure niches of law, in which I'd not grasped the extent of the EU protections we take for granted: it's vital to preserve and nurture those rights in UK law after Brexit.  I want to be in Parliament to scrutinise the Brexit process and ensure that women don't pay the price for a hard Brexit.

I'm standing in Vauxhall, where one of the key areas of debate - by no means the only or most important issue - is Brexit.  The former MP, Kate Hoey, campaigned alongside Nigel Farage for Brexit, in a constituency where 78% voted to Remain. I campaigned publicly for Remain, including debating in public at Sadler's Wells.

In the lecture theatre kindly donated by a City law firm, I also organised and chaired a panel discussion by six black women of different ages, occupations, nationalities and backgrounds, called "Black Women's Voices on Brexit." 

At the end of that discussion, around sixty delegates, mostly black women, voted unanimously to Remain, however, the media entirely ignored the event, just as, during the EU Referendum debate, women's voices were generally ignored. 

I'm a barrister, neither a career politician nor a party apparatchik.  For the last five years, I've served on the Steering Group of the Temple Women's Forum and this year I joined the Retention Panel of the Bar Council's Equality and Diversity and Social Mobility Committee.

After many years of feeling silenced and excluded by mainstream politics, I joined the Women's Equality Party in October 2015 as a founding member.  I stood for the Greater London Assembly in May 2016 and at our first party conference, in November 2016, I was elected to Policy Committee as Spokesperson on Equal Representation. 

I've always worked full-time as a breadwinner, and I'm now the lone parent of three school-age children.  My personal experiences as well as my professional committee work have taught me that even women privileged enough to work as barristers still face structural barriers to attaining equality. 

Snapshot: the Experience of Self-Employed Women at the Bar illustrates how women at the self-employed Bar generally have very different experiences of working life from their male colleagues, not least because 57% of the women at the Bar with children are primary carers, compared to just 4% of fathers at the Bar.  It's taken five years' hard work for the Temple Women's Forum to obtain the platform which we now enjoy, to ensure that women barristers' voices are finally heard by all.  Paying London nursery fees out of taxed, self-employed income was very tough for me.  The UK has the world's most expensive childcare.  I'm proud to stand for the only party which promises free universal childcare for 40 hours a week for anyone who wants it, in a fully-costed Manifesto

Likewise, I now find my experience of standing for Parliament very different from the male experience portrayed in the media.  During my campaign, I'm incurring extra childcare expenses for evening and weekend campaigning at the rate of around £150 a week.  I can afford to stand for Parliament only because the Women's Equality Party is reimbursing my extra childcare costs

As far as I'm aware, no other political party shares our practice. Having examined the myriad election expenses rules, I find that mainstream politics is so out of touch with women's needs that caps on election expenditure completely ignore childcare expenses. 

There is, therefore, no election expense limit stopping the richer parties from funding their candidates' childcare expenses as part of their projects claiming to encourage women candidates: they simply choose not to. I raise my voice loudly on the issue of childcare because women's needs have not been heard by the other parties, despite all their talk of all-women shortlists and putting women into safe seats. 

WE are doing politics differently - because equality is better for everyone. Register to vote by 22 May and use your vote on 8 June. 

Harini Iyengar is standing for Parliament for Vauxhall for the Women's Equality Party.  She was called to the Bar in 1999, seven months pregnant, and practises from 11KBW, where her specialisms include EU, Employment, Equality, Education, Human Rights and Procurement law.