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  1. Party Conferences2017
  2. Labour Party Conference
24 September 2018updated 23 Jul 2021 12:10pm

Labour is making a new senior post for a woman – isn’t that a good thing?

The party is backing the election of a second, female deputy leader. But the rule change is controversial.

By Anoosh Chakelian

On the eve of Labour party conference, its ruling body, the National Executive Committee, backed a rule change that would see the creation of a second deputy leader who must be a woman.

This move was part of Labour’s democracy review – which also includes giving members more weight in the parliamentary candidate selection process – and is being interpreted as largely a political move to shore up the party’s Corbynite future.

Tom Watson, the party’s current deputy leader, has a fraught relationship with the Labour leader, having sympathised with Labour MPs’ attempted coup against Jeremy Corbyn in 2016.

Although he warmed to Corbyn following the 2017 election result – even singing the White Stripes Seven Nation Army “Ohh Jeremy Corbyn” chant during his speech to last year’s Labour conference – he has more recently since broken rank with the leader, particularly on issues such as anti-Semitism in the party and a second referendum on Brexit.

Following a dispute over whether he’d get to speak at this year’s conference (reportedly eventually being offered “graveyard slots” after being left off the running order), Watson is breaking tradition this year to speak only on the fringe rather than in the official conference hall.

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So the party’s decision to double up his job – by appointing a joint deputy leader – is being seen as a move to limit his power as a Corbynsceptic in senior office. (All recent Labour internal votes show it’s highly likely the woman elected to the new post will be supportive of Corbyn’s project.)

The move is also being seen as another way for the party’s left to secure a future for Corbynism beyond Corbyn – a woman as second deputy leader could be lined up as a future leader of the party.

The rule change has been met with cynicism by some in the party who otherwise support increasing women’s representation. For example, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley Jess Phillips suggested it simply pays lip service – “checking a box” rather than bringing in real change.

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Others pointed out the irony of the focus on the deputy leader position, considering Labour has never elected a woman as leader.

The argument against fixed positions for women in general doesn’t really wash – the party’s introduction of all-women shortlists for the selection of candidates ahead of the 1997 election transformed the make-up of Parliament. So engineering a post for a woman can’t be argued as wrong in itself.

But this latest rule change, arriving at this point – when the left is increasing its influence in the party – does feel cynical to those who have been campaigning for gender quotas in Labour leadership roles for years. (For example, Angela Eagle lamented to the New Statesman in 2015 that this is the one layer of the party still not “quota-ised”.)

There was a fight to change this in the late Eighties, when other quotas (such as at the selection stage) were debated, and politicians like Harriet Harman have called for a gender-balanced leadership team consistently over the years.

Harman, who was deputy leader from 2007-15, urged the party to change its rules in order to ban an all-male top team, and also suggested in 2015 that a third leadership post could be created that must be filled by a woman, ie. an extra deputy leader to add to the team of two men we currently have.

So the fact that allies of the Labour leadership only began sounding out this latest change in July 2017 – and the Unite union leader Len McCluskey only came out in support for it last September – emphasises a political ulterior motive behind the decision.

Nevertheless, dissenters in the party will still try and use the new elected position to influence Corbyn. The division of opinion on Brexit among the party’s membership – including within its influential left wing – means a left-wing female deputy leader in Corbyn’s image isn’t guaranteed, at least regarding Europe.

Indeed, the Guardian reports that some activists are hoping a candidate willing to campaign for a second referendum will stand – to put pressure on the leadership, which has been studiedly cautious on the issue.