Harman plans to be part of Labour's negotiating team. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Would more women on the parties' negotiating teams form a better coalition?

Backroom girls.

"Backroom boys" is a standard phrase when discussing the wheeling and dealing behind closed doors in Westminster. But what about the girls?

A good question asked of the panel on the BBC's Woman's Hour debate this morning was how each of the women (Harriet Harman, Caroline Lucas, Theresa May, Leanne Wood, Sal Brinton, Eilidh Whiteford and Diane James) would influence coalition negotiations. And would more women negotiating create a better-quality coalition?

The most telling answer was from Harriet Harman. She said: "I think all-male decision-making with women abiding by it is wrong, it's old-fashioned." She pointed out that decision-making is more effective when carried out by a diverse team. 

Harman was part of Labour's negotiating team (which failed) in 2010, but the successful two parties didn't have a single woman involved in the Tory/Lib Dem deal between them. And although Harman gave the standard line about working for a majority, there was a heavy hint that if it comes to doing a deal, she plans to be part of the process.

I hear from a shadow frontbench source that she would sacrifice a departmental role (she is currently both shadow culture secretary and deputy leader) to take a front seat both in negotiations, and the long-term establishment, of an alliance with another party.

***

Here are the other panelists' replies:

 - The SNP's Eilidh Whiteford struggled to answer the question, talking about the need for more women MPs in general.

 - The Home Secretary Theresa May too preferred to dodge it by saying "one woman in particular" (Nicola Sturgeon) would have all the influence in negotiations with Labour. 

 - Ukip's Diane James began talking about the experience of women in business, before being admonished by presenter Jenni Murray for failing to answer the question. "We all have testosterone," she retorted, when asked if Ukip was testosterone-fuelled.

 - Lib Dem party president Sal Brinton deployed what must be the Lib Dems' latest differentiation tactic (she gave the line to me first in an interview in January and Vince Cable said a similar thing to the Guardian in April): "The love-in in the rose garden wasn't helpful, it was wrong."

 - The Greens' Caroline Lucas and Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru were more direct about women working together to form alliances, the former saying, "What we don't want to see is yet more men going behind closed doors, cooking things up." The latter highlighted how her party, Plaid Cymru, has been working with the Greens and the SNP on a more progressive agenda (all three parties have female leaders).

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

BBC screengrab
Show Hide image

Owen Smith is naïve if he thinks misogynist abuse in Labour started with Jeremy Corbyn

“We didn’t have this sort of abuse before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Owen Smith, the MP challenging Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest, has told BBC News that the party’s nastier side is a result of its leader.

He said:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.

“It’s now become something that is being talked about on television, on radio, and in newspapers. And Angela is right, it has been effectively licenced within the last nine months.

“We’re the Labour party. We’ve got to be about fairness, and tolerance, and equality. It’s in our DNA. So for us to be reduced to this infighting is awful. Now, I understand why people feel passionately about the future of our party – I feel passionately about that. I feel we’re in danger of splitting and being destroyed.

“But we can’t tolerate it. And it isn’t good enough for Jeremy simply to say he has threats too. Well, I’ve had death threats, I’ve had threats too, but I’m telling him, it’s got to be stamped out. We’ve got to have zero tolerance of this in the Labour party.”

While Smith’s conclusion is correct, his analysis is worryingly wrong.

Whether it is out of incompetence or an unwillingness to see the extent of the situation, Corbyn has done very little to stamp out abuse in his party, which has thus been allowed to escalate. It is fair enough of Smith to criticise him for his failure to stem the flow and punish the perpetrators.

It is also reasonable to condemn Corbyn's inability to stop allies like Chancellor John McDonnell and Unite leader Len McCluskey using violent language (“lynch mob”, “fucking useless”, etc) about their opponents, which feeds into the aggressive atmosphere. Though, as I’ve written before, Labour politicians on all sides have a duty to watch their words.

But it’s when we see how Smith came to the point of urging Corbyn to take more responsibility that we should worry. Smith confidently argues that there wasn’t “this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism” in the party before Corbyn was voted in. (I assume when he says “this sort”, he means online, death threats, letters, and abuse at protests. The sort that has been high-profile recently).

This is naïve. Anyone involved in Labour politics – or anything close to it – for longer than Corbyn’s leadership could tell Smith that misogyny and antisemitism have been around for a pretty long time. Perhaps because Smith isn’t the prime target, he hasn’t been paying close enough attention. Sexism wasn’t just invented nine months ago, and we shouldn’t let the belief set in that it did – then it simply becomes a useful tool for Corbyn’s detractors to bash him with, rather than a longstanding, structural problem to solve.

Smith's lament that “it’s now become something that is being talked about” is also jarring. Isnt it a good thing that such abuse is now being called out so publicly, and closely scrutinised by the media?

In my eyes, this is a bit like the argument that Corbyn has lost Labour’s heartlands. No, he hasn’t. They have been slowly slipping away for years – and we all noticed when Labour took a beating in the last general election (way before Corbyn had anything to do with the Labour leadership). As with the abuse, Corbyn hasn’t done much to address this, and his inaction has therefore exacerbated it. But if we tell ourselves that it started with him, then we’re grasping for a very, very simple solution (remove Corbyn = automatic win in the North, and immediate erasure of misogyny and antisemitism) to a problem we have catastrophically failed to analyse.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.