Electing a Woman Won’t Fix Labour’s Women Problem

As Labour look set to elect another male leader, Victoria Parrett is frustrated with how women have been used in this contest.

A few months before this contest began, John McDonnell said that “Labour’s next leader should be a woman.” He thought it was time.

I believe that after 120 years of men leading the party, we probably should have elected at least one woman by now.

But I don’t believe for a second that the sudden concern these men have with the gender of our next leader is anything but tactical, patronising and hypocritical. The “waking up” of these men on the left just seems to me to be another loop in an endless widening spiral of virtue signal politics.

I've been involved in feminist activism for as many years as you can and still claim to be a Young Fabian. I've attended and participated in plenty of women’s meetings and conferences as a student and Labour member. I've read De Beauvoir, Crenshaw and Butler. I am aware of women's issues. I even went so far as to get a degree with gender in the title. Which is why I find it interesting that I'm suddenly told by people who've been MPs for 30 years and shadow chancellors and leaders for four how important it is to have women in positions of responsibility. The McDonnells, Burgons, and Laverys of the world were crying out for their male leader to take the reins five years ago. There were two incredibly strong female candidates running – but in their cry for change on the left, the membership had no other choice but to elect the old, white, male, career politician and placed those women last in the competition.

So what has changed?

Maybe #metoo made them remember gender inequality existed? Or they saw Theresa May leading the Tories and thought we needed some of that success for our side? Or just maybe they knew Keir Starmer was their biggest opponent in this race and worked out it was easier to pretend to win some feminist points than win the argument another way. A mystery.

What frustrates me most is that this comes after a supposedly radical manifesto which had seemingly no interest in feminist policy, feminist economics, or changing our public systems to provide gender equality. When the widening of the gender pay gap is most significant when women become parents and with all of Labour’s claim to be concerned about ending this gap, how have they justified a parental leave policy which only widens the entitlement between men and women? It is a policy which fails, even after all this time, to reform the coalition’s ineffective shared parental leave policy. Labour’s leadership, whoever that might be, needs to understand that complex problems require detailed solutions crafted with the input of experts. It should not necessitate the rattling out of right-on and re-tweetable soundbites. 

I’d love a woman to be leader. I’m not going to get one this month. But I’d fall head over (high) heels for one as shadow chancellor. The UK has never had a female chancellor. Considering all of the challenges we face; I honestly think that would be a more significant record to break.  

Given the talent among women of the PLP it would hardly be a difficult appointment to make. Yvette Cooper was the first person to ever mention feminist economics in parliament, Rachel Reeves has her own economic manifesto which embraces the changing economy. These are just two of the women we insist on wasting in the backbenches when their talents could be revolutionising our economic policy. 

Leadership is far from the only way to break the stale male cycle. We can’t keep heralding our successes in promoting women if it’s only certain positions, certain industries, certain women. And if the left is serious about changing the UK’s long enshrined gender roles it can’t only be about pushing women into power – men need to step back and take on different roles as well.

My hope is for a party that can stop playing these political games with identity and start tackling problems seriously through policy. In pushing for continuity Corbyn and continuing to peddle unpopular far left tactics, McDonnell’s side of the party only serves to keep us in opposition and deprive the country of a progressive Labour government that women in the UK desperately need.


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