Labour must have a woman on the ticket, says Lesley Smith

Ten days ago Labour Uncut called, patronisingly, for “a credible woman” on the Labour leadership ballot.

I’ve rarely found myself making common cause with Diane Abbott, and nor is she my preferred candidate, but she has at least seen an open door and walked towards it. There should be a woman on the ticket – but not to save Labour’s embarrassment. It’s an indictment that none apparently wants it (even perhaps Diane) and that we’ve propelled so few women into recent positions of responsibility and recognition that any feel eligible or likely to be taken seriously.

Labour’s 81 women are 31% of the parliamentary party, the highest proportion ever, and include the first three Muslim women MPs.  But in terms of women’s voices being heard we’re behind the curve. The 22% of seats held by women in the Commons make Britain the fiftieth most female parliament, level with Uzbekistan, just ahead of China and Malawi but below Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is obvious that broadening participation, in terms of gender, ethnicity, background or experience, changes politics. So a ballot that includes only interchangeable, middle class white men is something of a failure for a party that has banged on about inclusion for three decades.

It is absolutely vital that we engage all our members in the debate about what the Labour Party can and should offer the electorate and how it is led. That debate would and should be strengthened by the participation of women candidates. Having a woman in the contest changes the issues every candidate has to engage with. Outside the PLP it will engage far more women – as we urgently need to do.

Yet 23 years since we first insisted on women on constituency shortlists, we are about to choose our leader from a set of highly able but undifferentiated white men.  Any business fishing for leadership talent in such a small pool would be a laughing stock.

The embarrassed candidates affect comic dismay.  Ed Miliband quickly jumped behind Harriet Harman’s call for a half female shadow cabinet, but added primly that it’s the PLP’s decision not his. Not quite the smack of firm leadership.  Quick as a flash, Austin Mitchell claimed that there were too few good women to choose from.

You can’t find ten, Austin, even with the Lords? Yet the twin principles of “Buggin’s turn” or “I owe him for delivering the [insert region or union name] vote” have gifted all kinds of ropey men senior roles without a murmur.  Worse still, not one of his male colleagues stamped on Mitchell’s comments. What does that tell women members?

From a proportionately far smaller pool, Labour provided the first woman cabinet minister (Margaret Bondfield as labour minister and the first female privy counsellor in 1929), and later the first female whip, chief whip, home secretary, leader of the House, Speaker and foreign secretary, every one highly able.

Yet, in 88 years since the Parliamentary Labour party began electing its leader, only one previous woman, Margaret Beckett, has stood as Leader.

And to those who say, yes we’d like a woman but not this one – well she’s what you’ve got.  The fact that no other woman is standing is not simply about it being a crap job that no sane woman wants (although that’s a factor). It’s not just women’s responsibility to persuade their sisters to swallow hard and tolerate idiotic working arrangements, impossible compromises with their children and sexist abuse that is outlawed from every other workplace.

It is the job of the whole party, not just its women, to make the package viable for women with, for example, family responsibilities. Harriet Harman has spent a career making such points and endured misogynist abuse from her own side as well as the Tories.

The fact that no other woman has come forward tells us less about the PLP women (other than that they are sane and sensible) than it does about the organisation we have become.

The larger question is why no sensible woman wants the job.  Yvette Cooper made a personal case against.  Others rule themselves out on grounds of insufficient experience or visibility (though voter invisibility hasn’t stopped Andy Burnham).

But there’s truth in Fiona Mactaggart’s charge that, as a party, we’ve retreated from promoting women, or giving them significant responsibility.  Tony Blair had three female chief whips, a female Northern Ireland secretary, industry secretary and foreign secretary and two female leaders of the Lords – in each case the first time a woman had held the office.

Not all were brilliant all the time, but nor were their cabinet brethren whose inadequacies, when exposed, didn’t hold back others of their sex. By June 2009, just four of the 24 members photographed at the cabinet table were women.  Since 1986 Labour party rules require that only four members of the shadow cabinet are women, not a quarter, a third or two fifths, let alone half.  Ridiculed, undervalued and disregarded, small wonder that women have little interest in fighting for office.

The sudden desire for more women to stand (presumably to enhance the legitimacy of a male victor) might be more convincing if it followed male protests at women’s under representation in cabinet. But turkeys, it turns out, only pretend to like Christmas.

Instead of rowing back since 2005 we should have been working urgently to get more women into cabinet.  Five years was more than long enough to spot, train and support capable women through the ranks of committee member, committee chair, junior minister and into office. Unless of course, you’ve choked up the career ladder with sinecures given to male timeservers as rewards for loyalty.

Companies know that squandering talent costs money and skills – that’s why they’re chasing female board members and executives with urgency. And it’s why they manage people up or out – and don’t let them block new talent. But too often in the recent past, Labour’s women have felt like and been used as window dressing, never more than in the appallingly demeaning leaders’ wives pageant.

And to those who say that any candidate needs to win the support of their colleagues, it sounds like a fair point but actually it’s a throw back to the days of “the PLP know best”. If you’re afraid that if Diane is on the ballot paper she might win, then you’re afraid of our neglected membership, with whom many of the leadership are woefully out of touch. If the Milibands and are so good (and I happen to believe they are), they won’t run scared from one articulate woman. And her or others standing will bring others into the field the next time round.

Twenty-three years ago at the 1987 Labour party Conference we argued that not until we had a woman on every short list would the party begin to change the face of politics. Lest we forget, shortlists are only a tool. The job is to represent our country better, to get more women elected and to govern in the interests of the whole community not just part of it. We won’t do that unless women are visible. 76 MPs have yet to nominate. It’s not too late.

Lesley Smith has been a member of the Labour party since 1979, worked for the party from 87 to 92 and has worked in the private sector since.

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3 Responses to “Labour must have a woman on the ticket, says Lesley Smith”

  1. Great piece. While we should be wary, for obvious reasons, of loading female candidates with a teetering pile of “women’s issues”, you’re quite right that the simple presence of a woman forces the others to expand the debate to include, erm, Us. And conversely, that an exclusively male candidates list has the effect of making gender equality a ‘niche’ issue.

  2. RightToBeMediocreToo says:

    Completely with you on this Lesly and also happen to think Dianne Abbot has the potential to be a great leader. I think she would surprise people by being a pragmatic left candidate. Lets have her on the ballot paper and see what happens.

  3. johnf says:

    Craig murray sums up Nu Labor’s future without an opened-up election:

    “Which opens the question, what is New Labour for? To me, it has found its niche as a neo-conservative opposition to a more traditional Conservative party given a still more comparatively Liberal tinge by coalition.”

    PS Are the left ever going to master the art of blogging and start attracting large numbers of posters? At the moment Labour sites seem to still resemble 1960’s marxist magazines with great wodges of statement by some theorist or other and 1.5 responses to it.

    Blogging is about the cut and thrust of debate. Stirring it. Fun. Labour sites are so dead the israeli hasbara don’t even bother to troll them!

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