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14 September 2015

What will Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership mean for women?

The new Labour leader has failed to give any of his shadow cabinet's top jobs to women. Is this a sign of things to come?

By Barbara Speed

Whatever your political stance, one common reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s selection as Labour leader on Saturday was: “oh, another man”. On Friday, Sadiq Khan took the mayoral candidacy against one female candidate who stood to his left, and one who stood to his right. In the leadership race, both first and second place went to male candidates. 

But all is not lost, right? A progressive, idealistic candidate from the left of the party can only mean good things for women, surely? Let’s take a look at Corbyn’s record and policies to see what his election will mean for female Labour voters and, if he were elected Prime Minister, for women in Britain as a whole.

His cabinet

Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is more than 50 per cent female: 16 of the 31 positions are filled by women. However, the four top jobs – shadow chancellor, shadow home secretary, shadow foreign minister, and, of course, leader – have all gone to men. During David Cameron’s tenure as Prime Minister, one of these cabinet positions has always been filled by a woman. 

Angela Eagle, originally tipped as shadow chancellor, has been named shadow business secretary and shadow first secretary of state, which means she will deputise Corbyn at PMQs. There are rumours that she turned down the shadow chancellor position, but my colleague George Eaton heard from a member of Eagle’s staff over the weekend that her office was expecting she would get that job, making this seem unlikely. 

Meanwhile, John McDonnell, who was named in her place, has a record of dodgy IRA pronouncements, and once said of Esther McVey at a Remembrance Sunday event: “Why are we sacking her? Why aren’t we lynching the bastard?” There is no evidence that Corbyn echoes or endorses these views, but his promotion of an MP who holds them, over a woman who could have balanced out the upper echelons of the shadow cabinet, is concerning.

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Corbyn’s team released a statement on the Cabinet’s gender divide earlier today:

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The statement attempts to move the goalposts by claiming that, in fact, other cabinet positions are just as important as the four top jobs. Yet however Corbyn values these positions, he can’t deny that British politics and the British public are agreed on what constitutes high-power cabinet positions – and it’s partly these assumptions that give the jobs their power in the first place. It’s a bit like claiming zero-hour contracts, the caring professions and unpaid household labour should be seen as the important and high-powered jobs in our society, and therefore we don’t need to push for workplace equality for women. 

Power is power, and claiming our traditional definitions of power are inadequate is just a way to sidestep the issue.

His policy so far

Corbyn came to the leadership election on an anti-austerity platform, which, as Emily Wight writes at OpenDemocracy, can only be a good thing for the gender that is disproportionately hit by benefits cuts and cuts to public services. 

In July, Corbyn also released a document, Working with Women, which outlines his intentions to end cuts to domestic services, welfare and refuges. It also contains plans to fight harassment (including the possibility of women-only Tube carriages) and push for equal pay and  better sex and relationships education in schools.

In terms of his voting record, Corbyn has consistently voted against cuts to welfare which would hit women hardest, and against further restrictions on asylum seekers.

In 2008, he voted against an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which would set the limit for abortions at 12 weeks, instead of 24, and pledged to extend UK abortion law (and equal marriage) to Northern Ireland if he became Prime Minister.

An important caveat: Corbyn has said that he will allow party members to decide policy, so his own voting record may not be an accurate indication of future policy. On the other hand, he is still the party’s leader, and his unwillingness to toe the party line in the past makes his record a far better reflection of his opinions than it would for most MPs.

His support base

Whatever his own views, Corbyn’s base is marred by a minority of supporters who see gender politics as an inferior concern to the class struggle.

Today, various Twitter users angrily defended Corbyn’s cabinet decisions. A small sample:


In the past Corbyn has warned his supporters that he woudn’t tolerate “abusive, racist, homophobic or sexist language or behaviour” towards his rivals in the leadership contest. Perhaps now would be a good time for him to extend the same courtesy again.

* * * 

So far, Corbyn’s greatest sins have been those of omission. He has made the mistake (made by many before him) of thinking that all it takes to be a pro-woman candidate, and counter the sexism inherant in British politics and his own support base, is to be a leftwing politician with policies on equality. It is not.

His willingness to cater to the default position – a party top-heavy with men – implies that he isn’t pushing to change a party which, despite its all-female shortlists and woman-friendly policies, clearly still has a long way to go before it elects a female leader. As my colleague Helen Lewis writes: “The shadow cabinet reshuffle gave the impression that the new Labour leader sorted out top jobs for the boys first – and then worried about finding enough women to even things out.”

Perhaps the best symbol of Corbyn’s position so far is the moment when he silently walked away from reporters’ questions about the shadow cabinet’s gender bias, a worrying move in a political climate where all it takes for sexism to continue is for men like Corbyn to do nothing. At best, he did it because he felt guilty. At worst, he did it because he just doesn’t care.