by Frazer Loveman
In the last two weeks, both of the major parties in the British political system embarked on leadership races. One of these races produced a female leader, the other guaranteed that a man would lead.
One would presume that the woman would have been picked from the party that has a female MP group 100 strong; that has argued ceaselessly for equality in the workplace and in wider society, and that continues to present itself as the progressive, forward thinking party.
This was not the case. Instead, it was the Conservative party, the ‘nasty party’, who gave the nation its second female PM, in fact, they chose the very woman who coined the ‘nasty party’ phrase.
In the 116 years Labour has existed it has never had a female leader. Indeed, a female candidate has never finished above a male candidate in a leadership race. The fact that Theresa May can now stand at the dispatch box and taunt the Labour party over this fact should be something that shames all Labour members.
This should not be the case, partly because Labour has had so many high profile women in parliament. The first female Home Secretary, the first female Foreign Secretary, the first female Speaker, all Labour women.
Yvette Cooper and Emily Thornberry have both shadowed great offices of state, Harriet Harman excelled as deputy leader and as acting leader, the same role Margaret Beckett filled with aplomb. But it is a fact that all this falls down at the final hurdle and this has allowed the Tories to take a march on Labour as the party of women.
It was a strong Labour woman who chose to stand up and declare that enough was enough, that Labour could not continue to be run by a man who MPs have described as “unable and unwilling to learn how to communicate with, listen to and persuade people with whom he doesn’t already agree” and who left those in his shadow cabinet feeling “undermined” (by the way, both of those quotes come from other women who served under Corbyn).
Angela Eagle has faced an untold backlash for speaking out, from a brick thrown through her constituency office window to having her CLP suspended by the National Party due to bullying, some of which was of an allegedly homophobic nature.
I would have been proud to vote for Eagle, a woman with true Labour values, who doesn’t appear at IRA rallies and doesn’t accept money from the state TV channel of a country that persecutes women and executes homosexuals (and that was banned by Ofcom for showing the forced confession of the journalist Maziar Bahari).
I wouldn’t have voted for Eagle because she was a woman, but because her experience in government and opposition made her a better option that the pathetic excuse for a leader who yesterday was systematically dismantled at the despatch box by a PM taking part in PMQs for the first time.
I was happy to vote for both Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall in the last leadership race, as I could see that both would be able to hold the Conservatives to account, to lead a credible opposition. I could see either one of them standing in front of Number 10 Downing Street in May 2020, I couldn’t see that of Corbyn.
I do not believe that Labour should have a female leader for the sake of it, that’s almost as counterproductive as continuing to not care that a woman has never led the party. As the excellent Janan Ganesh noted on Twitter, Labour may have these problems precisely because it worries so much about identity politics.
Both Cooper in 2015 and Eagle emphasised the fact they are women above all else. Looking across the aisle, neither May nor Margaret Thatcher became Tory leader because they were women, but because they were the best candidates at the time.
This is not to disparage Labour’s women, personally many of the Labour MPs I admire most are women, the likes of Heidi Alexander for taking Jeremy Hunt to account over the junior doctors; Gloria Del Piero for standing up for those in poverty or Jess Phillips for her seemingly one-woman crusade in defence of those in sheltered housing.
Perhaps it is the failure of ordinary members embarrassed by Labour’s Woman Problem to see them as simply superbly effective politicians, capable of holding a government to account and, eventually, replacing that government.
This brings us to the current leadership race, where once again Labour members must choose between two male candidates.
I actually thought Smith ran a better ‘campaign’ than Eagle, emphasising potential policy and how Labour can hold the Tories to account, and certainly I will support him over Corbyn.
However, he must find a way to address the perception that women in the Labour party are second class citizens. No doubt there will be a pledge for a gender equal shadow cabinet, which is something I personally dislike, cabinet positions should be awarded to the ablest and best qualified people.
It seems almost a certainty that Eagle would be Smith’s Shadow Chancellor, but why stop there?
Yvette Cooper has demonstrated through her work on the refugee crisis that she could easily handle the foreign affairs brief, and can you imagine her at the despatch box against Boris Johnson?
Liz Kendall showed during the last leadership race that she is a talented politician, and with a constituency in one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country she could make a positive case for immigration shadowing the Home Secretary.
Heidi Alexander has already displayed that she can take the Tories to task on the NHS, and Gloria Del Piero, who comes from a family where neither parent could work, could be the voice against Conservative welfare reforms that will leave those in poverty more vulnerable.
These appointments make sense not because of gender balance but because these women are probably more capable than many men in the party to handle these briefs. If Labour is to solve its Woman Problem perhaps it needs to embrace female politicians not because they are women, but because they are integral to the party’s return to power.
Frazer Loveman is a history and politics student at the University of Southampton