Labour is a party that claims to have made great progress on women’s representation in the past 20 years. Yet Labour is also a party which has never had a female leader (except in an acting capacity in the interim period of leadership contests). It has only had two female deputy leaders, Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman – the same two women who have held the post of acting leader). It’s difficult to discern a Shadow Cabinet currently, with the mass exodus from the Labour front bench resulting in the current leadership contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith. But looking at Corbyn’s last functioning Shadow Cabinet, it is again hard to see how Labour can live up to their claim of progress on women’s representation, with the top jobs in the Shadow Cabinet – leader, deputy leader, shadow chancellor, shadow home secretary and shadow foreign minister – all held by men. By the end of September, the Labour party will have a new leader, and it is a disappointing but unequivocal certainty now that the new leader will be male – where, exactly, is the progress on women’s representation that Labour claim?
Reports of systemic misogyny within the Labour party have been bubbling under the surface for years, but it has been under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn that the situation has reached a peak. It has to be acknowledged that potentially, the vendetta of many Labour MPs against Corbyn himself could have something to do with this issue suddenly surfacing – the blame for all misogyny in the Labour party cannot be pinned on Corbyn alone, and it must have been given space to flourish in the Labour party for years before his leadership. Nevertheless, Corbyn has been accused of doing little to bring an end to the apparent discrimination against women in the party, and as previously stated, has done little with his power of appointment to the Shadow Cabinet to actively promote deserving women in the Labour party to positions of power.
Labour MP Jess Phillips, who has been one of the most vociferous people in speaking out against the low-level misogyny allowed to flourish in the Labour party, explains in a Guardian article that she does not believe Corbyn himself is misogynistic – just somewhat entitled and unwilling to create active change, seeing equality for women within and outwith the party as a positive trickle-down effect of the left-wing cause. But in the same article, Phillips speaks of the ‘gruesome misogyny’ present in Britain’s political left – a misogyny evident in the Socialist Worker Party’s treatment of sexual assault allegations. The woman making the allegations was subjected to questions about her drinking habits and sexual history, and the case was eventually dismissed. Yet Labour are still associated – albeit reluctantly – with the SWP, and also with George Galloway, who has previously claimed that having sex with a woman while she is asleep is not rape. Misogyny is clearly still an insidious presence in the British political left.
The evidence supporting Phillips’ claim that misogyny in the left is forgiven by some left-wing feminists in order to further the cause of a left-wing man is unclear. This seems a little extreme. But it’s certainly true that misogyny has been allowed to fester in the left wing for many years now, and the extent to which it is apparently systemic is abysmal. It is not up to the Labour party alone to defeat this, but it is up to them to take the lead. Without taking on relatively simple goals – in making the Shadow Cabinet 50/50 with respect to gender and giving women the chance to perform in top jobs – change in the Labour party will continue at this glacial and frankly disappointing pace. It’s time for the Labour party to live up to their claims and actually make some progress on women’s representation.