Labour figures suddenly demanding a female deputy leader reveal their own sexism

It’s not a fight for equality if you only do it when it’s politically convenient.


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At last. One of the biggest feminist defeats in the Labour party could be reversed. The idea of having gender quotas in the leadership team – the one layer of the party, as Angela Eagle told the New Statesman in 2015, which is still not “quota-ised” – is back on the table.

At the moment, the Labour party can elect an all-male (and, if you can believe it, an all-female) leadership team, which is made up of the party leader and deputy leader. 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, has urged the party to change its rules in order to ban an all-male top team, and has also suggested 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: Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson.

Today, the head of the Unite union Len McCluskey has taken Harman’s idea and run with it, calling for a second – female – deputy leader.

He told the BBC: “I think there’s a debate at the moment that says it would be good to have two deputies: one male, one female.”

When asked if that means Watson would be joined by a fellow deputy, McCluskey replied: “I think that sounds like a good idea to me.”

According to the FT, this idea has been mooted by allies of Jeremy Corbyn since July this year, when rumours emerged that the current shadow foreign secretary and Corbyn ally Emily Thornberry was being encouraged to challenge Watson.

In the absence of a quota (which some argue could block political balance in the leadership team), creating an extra deputy position would secure a woman in Labour’s top tiers. This level of representation is sorely needed in a party that has never elected a female leader, and that could soon be without any women in senior elected positions, as my colleague George points out:

When proposed by Harman, a politician who has fought for decades for equality in the Labour Party, it seems like a sensible (if compromised) plan to improve women’s representation. But McCluskey and others are exposing their own sexism in resurrecting her idea. They’re using a feminist argument for their own ends – an extra deputy would reduce the influence of Watson, whom they see as an enemy after his manoeuvring against the Labour leader in last year’s attempted coup. Or, in other words, they are doing what men always do: exploiting women for power.

If Labour figures close to the leadership really cared about this battle, wouldn’t they have changed the rules – or introduced a second deputy – already? You’d think McCluskey, who has long been an influential figure on the left, might have mentioned it before now – or backed Harman when she called for it in 2015, if it were a subject so close to his heart. It’s also not a new idea within or outside Labour. The Greens, for example, have a gender balanced co-leadership.

When politicians are simply using a gesture towards gender balance to attack their rivals, it’s difficult to take their feminist endeavours seriously.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.