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7 July 2016

We’re still waiting for a female Labour leader – it’s getting embarrassing

Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom are showing Labour up. 

By Julia Rampen

As Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom square up over the Tory leadership, I can’t be the only feminist close to the Labour Party that is quietly squirming. 

It looks almost certain – after the last three weeks it’s hard to admit to certainty any more – that the next Prime Minister will be a woman. That’s two nil to the Tories. 

Apart from the brief stand-in leadership of Margaret Beckett after John Smith’s death, and the custodian rule of Harriet Harman, the Labour Party has never had a female leader. Indeed, the Wikipedia page is a roll call of white men. 

Let’s remind ourselves, the Tories have never pretended to be the party of equality. They’re Conservatives – they like things how they are.

Labour, on the other hand, is supposed to be the party of social justice. 

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It gets more embarrassing when you look outside the Westminster bubble. In Scotland, not only is the First Minister a woman, but so are the leaders of the Scottish Tory and Labour parties. In Wales, the leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru is a woman. 

So what’s the answer? Well, one is to start off with a more even gender split in the first place. In that respect, Scotland has a head start. In Westminster, 29 per cent of MPs are female – a record high. 

In the Scottish Parliament, the proportion has always been higher. In the very first election, in 1999, 37 per cent were women. Today, roughly a third are.

This higher proportion is thanks in part to Labour and the Scottish National Party’s use of gender quotas, and all-women shortlists. The recent Tory surge aside, these left-wing parties have dominated politics. 

A long track record of women in Parliament creates a pool of politicians who can be mentored, promoted and eventually put up for the top job. Nicola Sturgeon, for many years Alex Salmond’s right-hand woman, is a classic example of this.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, for all her star-like qualities, took over from another woman – the Scottish Parliament veteran, Annabel Goldie. 

Given the importance of this talent pool, perhaps it is unfair to criticse Labour, since the Westminster party led the way in boosting the numbers of female MPs. Under the last Labour Government, we saw a female Home Secretary (Jacqui Smith) and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mo Mowlam). 

But with women making up 43 per cent of Labour MPs, time has run out. There is no more excuse for denying them the top job.