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Does Labour have a woman problem?

The fate of Diane Abbott suggests it just might.

The latest Ucas figures find that ethnic minority students are one to two per cent less likely to get offers from the top universities than their white peers, even when you control for subject choice and A-Level grades.

A 2009 study by the Department of Work and Pensions found that ethnic minority jobseekers had to send 16 applications for a successful outcome against nine for white jobseekers. (And once again, that’s controlling for qualifications, cover letters, and all of the other bumpf that accompanies a job application.)

And in 1999, researchers at the  University of Wisconsin found that men and women were more likely to hire and give tenure to male applicants than female applicants. (And, as with both previous examples, CVs and applications were identical in all other aspects.)

The Labour party held two concurrent elections this summer. In one, in London, an anti-austerity candidate from the Campaign group of MPs, who no-one expected to win, entered the ballot largely for “a debate”. In the other, across the country, an anti-austerity candidate from the Campaign group of MPs, who no-one expected to win, entered the ballot largely for a debate.

The candidate in London, Diane Abbott, a black woman, got 16 per cent of the vote. She finished third, behind two candidates to her right: a white woman, Tessa Jowell, finished second. An Asian man, Sadiq Khan, finished first.

 The candidate across the country, Jeremy Corbyn, a white man, got 59 per cent of the vote. He defeated three candidates to his right, a man and two women. The women – Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – finished third and fourth respectively.

I’m not saying that the 44 per cent gap between Abbott and Corbyn is wholly the result of racism and/or sexism.  It is difficult, however, to argue that none of it was.

Throughout the campaign, Abbott was marginalised, not only in the bulk of the coverage of the mayoral race, but by others on the Left. At Jeremy Corbyn’s final victory rally, Len McCluskey praised Corbyn for bringing up a debate that hadn’t been discussed for “more than thirty years”. But Abbott had run on a platform very similar to Corbyn’s just five years ago. (McCluskey’s Unite opted to endorse Ed Miliband instead.)

In the leadership race, there is a perfectly honourable explanation for what happened: Labour members voted for the candidate that was furthest to the left.  But in the deputy race, Tom Watson defeated a woman - Angela Eagle - who was to his left. Khan beat Jowell, who, according to the polls, had a better chance  of beating Zac Goldsmith, and Abbott, who was far to his left. 

The real question isn't: "does Labour have a problem with women?", nor is it "does Labour have a problem with ethnic minorities?". We know that  the culture at large has a problem with women and a problem with minorities. There's no reason at all to suggest Labour is any different from the country. A better question is: what to do about it?

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

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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

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

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia