Is Labour anti-women?

No, but Corbyn should be very careful about the amount of women’s representation, and at what level.

Ben Margulies
21 September 2015
Liz Kendall.jpg

Flickr. Labour Party. Some rights reserved.In most respects, everyone agrees that Jeremy Corbyn’s elevation to the leadership of the Labour Party is little short of revolutionary. His faction within the party had long been relegated to Labour’s dustiest oubliette; his candidacy was a sop to ideological diversity that caught fire like Katniss Everdeen.          

However, there has been one segment of opinion that deems Corbyn’s election, and that of the new deputy leader and London mayoral candidate, to be a throwback. Feminist commentators have claimed that the election results reveal a misogyny or hostility to female leadership within the Labour Party. Every female candidate for the three major offices up for nomination was defeated. To add insult to injury, Corbyn named men to shadow all four of the “great offices of state” – the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the home secretary, the justice secretary and the foreign secretary.  Corbyn did name a female-majority shadow cabinet – a first – but as several of the women named are in relatively junior positions, Corbyn and his party now face cries of sexism, including some from within the parliamentary party. Are they justified?

It’s not my place to tell British women that they don’t experience sexism or aren’t fit to identify it. I am well aware that this essay can appear to be noxious mansplaining. That said, I don’t think Corbyn’s victory – or the defeats of his female opponents, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – reflect an institutional sexism within the Labour Party or Corbyn voters. Although almost no organization in any society is free of structural sexism, Labour’s record on feminist issues is unusually good for any western political party. One can accuse Labour of many things – from a lack of revolutionary fervor to fiscal incompetence – but it is difficult to accuse it of being hostile to feminism.

It is true that trade unionism has traditionally been male-dominated, since males were more likely to dominate formal employment. (This is one reason that female voters were historically more conservative than men in many countries.) But Labour has long showed a degree of comfort with having women in charge. Labour named the first-ever female minister, Margaret Bondfield, in 1924, giving her full Cabinet status as labour minister in 1929. Harold Wilson made Barbara Castle his first secretary of state in 1968, and put her in charge of relations with the unions, two years before the Tories gave Margaret Thatcher a more junior government post. Of the seven women to hold ministerial office before Thatcher took power in 1979, five were Labour MPs (Florence Horsbrugh and Thatcher herself were the sole Conservatives).

Perhaps most importantly, it was Labour that introduced the all-women shortlist in a 1993 resolution of the party conference. In the more than 20 years since, no other party has adopted the practice. Labour nearly tripled the number of women it elected to the Commons in the 1997 election, increasing their number from 37 to 101. Today, 99 of the 232 MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party are women, or 43 percent of the total. This is by far the highest proportion of any large party in the House of Commons. The Scottish Labour Party has just elected a female leader, its third in the past decade. Had it not been for Labour’s efforts at ensuring women had access to political office, Cooper and Kendall would have had no access to the leadership election at all.

Labour’s record on women’s rights and empowerment is also excellent. It was Labour that introduced the Equal Pay Act, and Labour that legalized abortion. Labour introduced the Sex Discrimination Act and the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act in the 1970s. Labour’s 2010 Equality Act requires businesses to publish information on pay broken down by sex (though this is only now being made mandatory). Although Labour has not been solely responsible for advances in women’s rights – Thatcher’s government passed several equality acts in this area – the party’s record on the issue is admirable.

Another problem with claiming that Labour is institutionally sexist is that Corbyn is not a creature of the Labour Party’s established institutions. It is a largely new electorate of new party members and registered supporters that gave Jeremy Corbyn the leadership of the Opposition. As Rhiannon Cosslett of The New Statesman pointed out, many of these were young people and economically excluded. The former category is more likely to be socially liberal; the latter more likely to be female. So it is hard to see how they could be a hotbed of patriarchy.

There are several examples of left-wing populist movements rallying around women candidates. The Corbyn surge rather resembles the huge surge in support from the Yes campaign that flowed into the ranks of the Scottish National Party last year. These voters’ enthusiasm didn’t dim when Alex Salmond resigned, and his female deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, replaced him. In Barcelona and Madrid, Podemos-backed left-populist candidacies propelled Manuela Carmena to the mayoralty of Madrid, and Ada Colau to that of Barcelona. And although the American left is rallying to Bernie Sanders, it’s worth remembering that he wasn’t their first choice.

In short, Cooper and Kendall didn’t lose because they were women; they lost because they were well to the right of Labour’s new median voters, as was Andy Burnham, who polled only slightly better than Cooper. As Olly Huitson pointed out in these pages, Corbyn’s focus on nationalization was more likely to help lower-income voters – and thus, more women – that Cooper’s focus on more modest Blairite programs. Furthermore, polls showed Corbyn was actually much more popular among women (61 percent) than men (48 percent) in the Labour electorate.

Similarly, Sadiq Khan beat Lady Tessa Jowell to the London mayoral candidacy because he was the more left-leaning candidate, and worked hard to recruit new members and supports. Khan did, of course, beat a left-leaning female Corbyn ally himself, Diane Abbott, but Abbott has long attracted criticism on the left for sending her son to a private school. And the three female candidates in the deputy leadership race were a majority of the candidates, and won a majority of the first-round votes between them (51.1 percent).

Does that mean that Corbyn’s feminist critics lack a point? Not at all. First off, just because misogyny wasn’t at play in the Labour leadership election does not mean it’s absent from politics, as the tale of Julia Gillard amply demonstrates. Despite the assertions of any number of meritocrats, technocrats and perfectly reasonable voters, politics isn’t just about finding “the best person for the job.” It is also about ensuring proper representation, and assembling councils of the nation that look like the nation, and distributing power equitably within those councils. A cabinet that lacks women – rather like David Cameron’s early attempts – is not competent to fulfill that function if 85 percent of its members are male. Nor does it represent the country if the female minority occupies positions of little power, or is deployed in ways that reinforce stereotypes of women (for example, only naming women to portfolios like education).  Indeed, if 85 percent of its members are male, one might simply come to picture “the best person for the job” as being naturally male. This was the logic behind the French parité law of 2000; without a quota, the “abstract citizen of the Republic” that a representative was supposed to be would always be gendered male.

Corbyn did indeed address this in creating a gender-balanced shadow cabinet. But by failing to name women to the most prestigious portfolios, Corbyn at least created the impression of marginalizing women, and as they say in the legal profession, the appearance of impropriety can be as bad as the reality. It doesn’t help that his shadow home secretary is Andy Burnham, a failed opponent who ran a lackluster campaign and had excoriated Corbyn only days before, or that he had to go to the Lords for an old Blair crony to the justice portfolio. There are surely better-qualified people for these posts, and many of them are women.

Is the Labour Party institutionally sexist? Is Corbyn? Well, almost all institutions in any society are sexist to some degree, including Labour. And some Labour voters may have, consciously or subconsciously, discounted female candidates for their gender. But the main reason that three men won Labour’s key leadership positions was less a reflection of sexism as the fact that Labour’s voters had moved sharply to the left, and the leftmost candidates were male.  Corbyn need not apologize for winning. But he must do everything possible to nurture and expand Labour’s record on women’s issues and improving women’s participation, so that many more women will have the opportunity to try and become Labour’s first permanent female leader.

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