Can women make it to the top of the Labour Party?

At a women’s hustings event, candidates set out how they’d address the gender imbalance at the top o

Macho? The Labour Party? Absolutely, according to the leadership candidates at last night's women's hustings. When asked to name an example, Ed Miliband said he didn't know where to start, with all the Blairite-Brownite blustering, and Diane Abbott said she didn't have all night. Ed Balls was surprisingly humane, admitting that even the giant hammer for Labour himself had been at the receiving end of macho thinking when colleagues told him his stammer was a weakness to which he shouldn't admit.

After a complaint that Labour's campaign material was full of men, Balls admitted that it was Sarah Brown -- not a female cabinet member -- who was called to be in the main photo for it.

There was something rather satisfying at seeing the "young princes and top guns of New Labour" -- a description used by Diane Abbott to describe her fellow candidates -- being forced to seek approval from a room packed with several hundred women. The event had been organised by Lead4Women, a grass-roots organisation that has sprung up spontaneously around the leadership election, in co-operation with the Fabian Women's Network. It was also good to see the event supported by upcoming female bloggers such as Delilah and Claire Spencer.

With the event coming on the day that the Labour PLP debated gender representation in the shadow cabinet, the first question asked how the candidates had voted. Ed Miliband, David Miliband and Diane Abbott voted for 30 per cent of posts being reserved for women, rising to 50 per cent in 2012, but the party as a whole went for Andy Burnham's preference for keeping it at 31 per cent, a figure that only just matches the goal set by David Cameron.

You have to wonder how much lobbying the leaders did to push their 50 per cent preference -- perhaps a token vote in the right direction was just a little too convenient. Ed Miliband sounded strongest here, saying we have to rebut the idea that women's shortlists are an affront to meritocracy. Having so few women at the top cannot be a fair representation of the talent that's out there.

On the plus side, all of the candidates agreed in principle to restoring women's conference, though David Miliband always comes across as being quietly sceptical of giving anybody in the Labour Party more formal policymaking powers (a stance that makes his empowerment and community organising spiel sound rather hollow). However, he did express his support for job-sharing shadow cabinet posts, a solution that might help women balance top jobs with caring responsibilities.

Boo, hiss, tut

Changing the hours of parliament to become more family-friendly was also raised by Burnham, a suggestion that Balls supported, lamenting how all his campaign volunteers had recently "gone back to school". David Miliband poured cold water on Burnham's suggestion that remote voting from home might also help female MPs, saying he had visions of his son "getting confused about which was the red button and which was the green button".

Outside of matters that concern mainly women, the group seemed strong on deficit reduction and taking on the "big society". Ed Miliband made Ed Balls -- his former boss at the Treasury -- proud by saying that the coalition had no strategy for growth, and that the country had a Budget that was flexible enough to respond to the circumstances.

It was sad to hear Abbott sounding weakest on the economy -- her suggestion that we should split tax rises and spending cuts 50:50 seemed arbitrary, and she chose to talk about scrapping Trident rather than offer any solid economic analysis. However unfortunate this may be, she should know that women need to work doubly hard to come across as credible on the economy.

However, Abbott's wasn't the biggest boo-boo of the night. Burnham set the room hissing and tutting by failing to have heard about the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old woman who has been sentenced to stoning for adultery in Iran.

But worse (if less-noticed) was the mistake by David Miliband, who was clearly friends with the chair and Daily Telegraph journalist Mary Riddell. As the hustings closed, he made her blush by unwittingly drawing her towards him for a kiss on both cheeks. She then felt obliged to try to kiss the other candiates, but clearly felt it inappropriate. Let's not have another man not realising when he's putting a woman in an awkward position.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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