There’s going to be a lot of argument over the next few months about who can win Labour’s leadership election. But it’s also worth talking about who loses. In 1994, it was Margaret Beckett. In 2010, it was Diane Abbott. In 2015, it was Liz Kendall; second last was Yvette Cooper. The 2015 deputy leadership election was lost by a man, Ben Bradshaw; however, Angela Eagle, Caroline Flint and Stella Creasy were all steamrollered by Tom Watson in the end. In 2007, Harriet Harman narrowly won the vote for deputy leader – but she lost anyway, because Gordon Brown decided not to appoint her deputy prime minister. As Angela Eagle launches her bid for the Labour leadership, one of her lines is: “Labour is ready for a woman leader”. It’s certainly time that Labour had a woman leader. But looking at Labour’s track record, it’s difficult to find any reason to believe that the party is ready.
Maybe it’s about politics rather than gender: in 2015, Corbyn represented a revival for the left, while poor Liz Kendall was nominated as the ghost of Blairism. But in 2010, Diane Abbott represented the left of the party, and came in with a higher profile than Corbyn thanks to her media work – how to explain her 7.42 per cent in 2010 compared to Corbyn’s 59.6 per cent in 2015? So maybe it’s about perceived competence instead: Abbott, fairly or not (and taking racism into account, a lot of it probably is unfair), is not considered a particularly skilled political operator. But Cooper is undeniably impressive, and was still beaten by the jellyfish Burnham. Whatever the other variables are, Labour women struggle to win.
That doesn’t mean that women never attain high office in Labour, of course. Harriet Harman got to lead the party briefly as interim leader in 2015, and Margaret Beckett did the same job in 2010. But being entrusted with a caretaker role is not the same as winning actual power. “What do we do?” joked Eagle in a speech to Fabian Women’s Network on Monday night. “We clean up the mess the men have made. We make the tea.” It’s a scene that will win wry recognition from lots of women who dedicate their time to their local constituency party, but it’s also utterly shameful that this is the model from which Labour’s women are forced to draw their legitimacy.
The mentality that sees Theresa May as Iron Lady #2 is, of course, sexism: bundling two politicians together on account of their femaleness can only be sexism. But it’s also a testament to the importance of precedent. Once you’ve been led (and very successfully) by one “bloody difficult woman”, it’s easy to imagine being led by another. And when your second bloody difficult woman appoints Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, so that for the first time half the great offices of state are occupied by women, you begin to see something of the way that female power begets female power. Theresa May’s record as a feminist is mixed, with laudable achievements in tackling male violence against women to be weighed against the moral stain of refugee women’s detention Yarl’s Wood. But she’s already achieved a landmark for women’s representation in politics.
Labour’s achievements for women are many and laudable, from the huge intake of women MPs secured by all-women shortlists, to maternity pay. Labour’s women MPs have led fiercely when it comes to protecting abortion rights and opposing the sex industry. But as an institution, the party seems stalled in Robin Morgan’s brutal 1970 assessment of gender roles on the left, from her broadside Goodbye to All That: men as “master of a harem, women to do all the shitwork”. Will Angela Eagle be the one to rectify that? The truth is, even if Labour can overcome its resistance to female leadership, the job she’s taken on is another kind of shitwork.
Challenging Corbyn puts her in the role of stalking horse. She’s triggered a leadership race, but that doesn’t mean her parliamentary colleagues will support her to win it. If Corbyn had stepped aside after the vote of no confidence or failed to make the ballot, other contenders would have come forward. Instead, she’s acting as “unity candidate” – a thoroughly thankless role that just means “the one everyone can begrudgingly agree to get behind for now” (which explains the lack of detail in her candidacy too). As things stand, Owen Smith is manoeuvring himself ready to launch his candidacy anyway, and cynically distancing himself from the coup now that Eagle has done the dirty job for him.
There’s only one reason Eagle would put herself in such a punishing position: because she cares. Listening to her emotional World at One interview about her resignation, it should be obvious – regardless of the minute policy differences between Labour factions – that she loves the party and the movement. Labour has produced brilliant women politicians, and is driven by the efforts of women activists. Blessed are the the tea-makers, the clipboard-holders, the people who make sure stuff actually happens. But what reward does Labour actually offer for this loyalty? Angela Eagle stands pinned between Labour’s glass ceiling above and misogynist abuse from angry Corbyn supporters in the rank-and-file. If Smith usurps her, Labour looks set on continuing its great internal redistribution project: from the efforts of women, to the credit of men.