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24 June 2011

Harman: “An all-male leadership is not acceptable“

One of the two most senior positions in the Labour Party should always be held by a woman, says Harr

By Samira Shackle

While Ed Miliband’s decision to axe shadow cabinet elections has grabbed the headlines, another significant change to Labour’s structure is also on the cards.

Harriet Harman has proposed that one of the two most senior positions in the Labour Party should always be held by a woman. The Labour deputy leader has submitted the proposal to Refounding Labour, a review of the party’s structure, saying that women are “still a long way from equal” in the party.

In an interview with the Times (£) today, she said: “Since 1906, we have had a leadership team of a leader and deputy. For 99 of those years we have had a men-only leadership team. Without this rule change, the likelihood is that we would slip back to a men-only leadership.” She added: “An all-male leadership is not acceptable to the party of equality.”

If adopted, this would be a significant change to the party’s constitution. My fellow NS blogger, Dan Hodges, reported a fortnight ago that Harman was seeking the support of female colleagues. She has had some success. Baroness Royall, Labour’s leader in the Lords, Yvette Cooper, Tessa Jowell and Angela Eagle are all behind the plan.

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Reportedly, Miliband and Peter Hain, who is conducting the review, are “sympathetic” to the suggestion — although no other shadow cabinet men have backed it.

Despite this theoretical support, however, it seems unlikely that this proposal will become party policy. The same arguments that are regularly wheeled out against all-female shortlists or quotas apply here: the most qualified candidates must be able to get the jobs (“I find it quite rude to suggest it would be “watering down” to have a woman in the leadership,” said Harman).

Last year, the quota for women in the shadow cabinet was raised to 6 out of 19 (31.5 per cent), but MPs rejected calls to raise the quota to 40 or 50 per cent. It is likely that this, too, will be seen as too much too soon.

While it is a valid point that women must not be parachuted in to positions for which they are not qualified, it is also true that the culture is not changing on its own. Labour very effectively used all-women shortlists in 1997 (and thereafter) to significantly increase its number of female MPs, as did the Conservatives in the last election. But this is irrelevant if these women cannot progress to leadership positions. Positive discrimination should only be used in the short-term, but it does work.

Proposals to Refounding Labour, which closes today, will be considered by the National Executive Committee over the summer.