The EU referendum has created some strange bedfellows. Nigel Farage and George Galloway; Michael Gove and Boris Johnson have all united to campaign for a leave vote. And last week, I found myself in the unusual position of arguing that we should remain alongside former Tory minister Edwina Currie on Radio 5 Live.
The EU referendum is perhaps not the first thing people associate with the UK’s fashion industry, which was on display a week ago during London fashion week. From having almost zero presence on the international fashion scene just 20 years ago, London has risen up the ranks and now sits alongside Milan and Paris as a globally celebrated fashion capital. The UK produces and attracts the top creative talent in the industry. Established and aspiring designers come here to exchange knowledge, show off their ideas and flaunt their designs. That Britain’s fashion industry is a world leader is, in part, thanks to our EU membership and the market access it gives us.
That is why designers like Amanda Wakeley and Alison Loehnis, president of luxury clothing group Net-a-Porter, have spoken out in favour of remaining in the EU. The UK fashion industry employs 600,000 people directly, and is the third largest fashion sector in the EU, after Italy and Germany. Most of those textile workers, whether at Burberry in Castleford or John Smedley in Derbyshire, are women. They are part of a sector that contributes £26bn directly to the UK economy.
While I relish my own role in fighting for the UK to remain in the EU, more powerful still are the women’s voices from all backgrounds, trades and professions. From TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady to easyJet boss Dame Carolyn McCall to Tory peer Karren Brady and those fashion industry leaders, women are already fighting to keep Britain in the EU.
While they may have made up their minds, many other women are yet to decide. Polling shows that up to a quarter of women are undecided about their vote on 23 June, almost twice as many as men. So much is at stake for women in this referendum. And the large number of undecided women voters could decide the outcome of the referendum.
Women from all backgrounds benefit from Britain being in the EU. Take rights for working women for example. The EU ensures equal pay for work of equal value, a fight long forgotten by a younger generation of feminists but memorably documented in the film Made in Dagenham. The EU underpins maternity (and paternity) rights, and the right to return to work after maternity leave. Working women also benefit from the right to sick leave and time off for urgent family reasons. Women are more likely to be in part-time, fixed-term and agency work. Thanks to the EU, we now enjoy rights to equal treatment in line with full-time permanent employees.
But the referendum isn’t just about women’s rights and protections. It’s also about the world that we want to create and our solidarity with women struggling in developing countries. The EU’s drive to tackle violence against women goes beyond our borders with its strategy to eliminate female genital mutilation, working with African countries and the UN. And the EU has worked closely with the government of Bangladesh to change employment laws and improve factory standards and inspections after the Rana Plaza tragedy which killed 1,100 garment workers.
So why are women less likely to have made up their minds? Research on women’s attitudes to the EU referendum by pollster Deborah Mattinson highlights women’s frustration at the nature of the discussion. They see and hear too few women in the campaign. Last week’s events have reduced the biggest political decision of the last 40 years to a Tory party civil war. They find the Boris and Dave show, and the jockeying around the future leadership of the Conservative party, boring and irrelevant. With the Tory party split on this issue, and “banging on” about Europe, the prime minister must take great care that the whole debate does not become a giant turn-off for all voters, not just women. If the vote becomes a referendum about a Westminster elite looking after its own political ambitions versus a grassroots anti-politics uprising, the risk of a vote for Brexit grows higher.
Mattinson rightly argues that the remain camp needs to make our arguments more “human-friendly” – rather than regurgitating statistics that are far removed from day-to-day reality. We need to make it personal. Instead of abstract figures about the impact of the EU on trade and investment, Mattinson rightly urges the remain camp to focus on individual job security.
But I think we need to go further. As well as focusing on the economic case we must also make the case for our shared European values and our shared culture. A culture which embraces and celebrates British fashion, food, football, music, films and university research in a European context. A culture that allows young women and men to live, study and work abroad. And the risks to those vital sectors of our economy and our cultural life if we leave.
The referendum is the biggest decision our country will make in a generation. While the debate can appear far removed, the EU has a positive impact on the lives of British women and their families every day. For that reason, women need to be front and centre of the campaign to remain, rather than just leaving it to the old boys’ club.