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9 September 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:14am

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

By Rowenna Davis

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.

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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.