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THIS weekend Labour’s Women’s Conference is a chance to reflect on the strides the labour movement has made in fighting inequality but also to remind us of how far we have to go.
That is pretty obvious in politics itself. As a working-class trade unionist, arriving in Parliament was like entering a different world.
Like a lot of the women elected as Labour MPs in the last two elections, it was made clear that we were different.
Often I face a wall of wealthy white men on the benches opposite. After one of my first appearances at the despatch box, a Daily Mail columnist wrote that I must have got lost from the set of Little Britain. And I know the prejudice faced by my ethnic minority colleagues has been even worse.
As a Labour Party we can start tackling that. But a Labour government will need to change not just politics but the country as a whole.
As Labour’s shadow education secretary, I know the great work that happens in our education system but the same inequalities that run through our economy and society are found there as elsewhere.
Take our universities — institutions which look and feel a lot like Parliament. When it comes to economic inequality, for example, the problem there is actually getting worse not better.
The pay of vice-chancellors and top managers has shot up in recent years. In some cases, it has risen by tens of thousands of pounds as the Tories have unleashed a failing free market experiment in higher education and universities have started copying the worst practices of private-sector businesses.
Even as students are graduating with the highest levels of debt in the developed world, nearly half of all vice-chancellors are paying themselves more than £300,000 a year.
And while their pay has risen year after year, the teaching staff who actually deliver an excellent education have seen their pay falling in real terms and their pensions under threat, while several thousand are now on zero-hours contracts.
I was proud to stand on the picket line with lecturers from universities and colleges last year, but I’ll be even prouder when a Labour government runs education as a public service for the public good.
Our national education service will extend our pay ratio policy for publicly funded institutions to universities, capping the highest salaries at a 20:1 ratio with the lowest, clamping down on excessive pay at the very top, and ending the days of top bosses setting their own pay behind closed doors.
The Tories’ neoliberal experiment, exposing universities to the whims of market forces, simply cannot be allowed to continue.
But as with wider society, inequality goes wider than just wages. There aren’t many workplaces that are as unrepresentative as Parliament but when two-thirds of the country’s professors are white men it feels like a similar story.
Only one in four professors are female, a figure that has barely increased in five years. But perhaps most astonishing of all, there are only 25 black female professors across the whole UK, out of around 20,000.
It simply cannot be right that institutions so important in society are so unrepresentative of the communities that they serve or the students they educate.
A Labour government would start to tackle inequality in our education system as in our whole society and economy. As first steps, we will make the regulator report on diversity and representation in higher education, require pay transparency reports on gender and ethnicity pay gaps, and ensure that each and every university sets out the steps they are taking to improve diversity.
Under the Tories our higher education system has been left to the whims of the free market, and the system they have created is built to serve this ideological purpose. Our principles are different.
A Labour government sees education as a public service and not a private commodity to be left to the whims of the market, funded by progressive taxation and provided as a right for the many and not a privilege for the few.
And so, as Women’s Conference meets, let’s acknowledge the challenges we face. But let’s also make clear that a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn will deliver a programme with the radicalism to match.
Angela Rayner MP is Labour’s shadow education secretary.
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