“It has to be a woman this time” What happened to the promise of a female Labour leader?

More than a century after the party was founded, it has turned to yet another man to revive its fortunes. 

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Last December, I hosted a New Statesman event to mark 100 years of women in the House of Commons. It was the night before the state opening of a new parliament, which would see vacancies filled at the top of Labour and the Liberal Democrats after the Conservatives’ general election victory.

At that point, the potential Labour leadership candidates were just shy of officially standing – writing forthright op-eds about “what went wrong” in newspapers and disclosing an unusual level of detail about their parents’ working-class roots on the radio.

One thing was certain, however. The next Labour leader had to be a woman. In its 120-year history, the party had still never had an elected female leader and, particularly after the brocialist reign of Jeremy Corbyn, now was the time (went the argument).

Neither Labour MP Jess Phillips nor Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, both of whom spoke on the panel, would confirm that they would run to replace their respective leaders that night. The former, who soon embarked on a short leadership campaign (dropping out on 21 January), professed that she “didn’t think I was born to rule” and noted the “absolute balls and frankly a little bit of arrogance” required of any Labour MP “to just assume you are the answer”.

Critiques like these have been commonplace about the campaign of shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer. Opponents tried to paint him as having organised his leadership bid ahead of the general election, pre-emptively anointing himself the chosen one.

The Conservative MP and former minister on the panel, Helen Grant, urged both Phillips and Moran to run, expressing her hope that the parties would be led by women next. She called them “great” and wished them the best of luck. It was a warm, sisterly moment, and the audience – mostly women – applauded.

Nevertheless, Phillips didn’t seem optimistic about her – or any other woman’s – chances. Naming no names, she said: “People still think that the man in a suit who can make a hard-hitting speech [is leadership material]. If a man in a suit stands up and makes a hard-hitting speech, people go, ‘he’s got leadership’. If a woman stands up and makes an amazing speech and is a brilliant orator, and is an amazing member of parliament, people say, ‘well, maybe, one day’.

“And that is as bad in the Labour Party as it is in any political party; when people think of people who rule us, they still think of a white man in a suit.”

And so it has apparently turned out in the Labour leadership election. Over the weeks of the contest, particularly since Phillips and fellow contender Emily Thornberry exited the race, the consensus that “the next leader must be a woman” has fizzled out. Starmer, the one man in the leadership election, has built a formidable lead in constituency nominations and opinion polls. 

Ask Labour MPs and staffers why this is and you will hear all manner of reasons. The Phillips theory, that the Labour membership is sexist just like other electorates, is one.  In common with all the main parties, there are more male than female Labour members (53 per cent, with the Tories and Lib Dems on 71 per cent and 63 per cent, respectively).

Labour has never elected a woman leader before and this cannot be explained by political leanings alone. Rebecca Long-Bailey, for example, the leadership candidate whose politics are closest to Corbyn’s, still appears significantly behind Starmer. Race is an even starker issue: Diane Abbott came third in the 2015 London mayoral selection amid the Corbyn surge, despite being one of his closest allies.

Many argue, nevertheless, that Starmer’s campaign has been the best, and he is simply a superior candidate. Plenty of female MPs have nominated him, after all, and he has the backing of high-profile women such as the respected QC Helena Kennedy. Others, as per Phillips’ argument, believe much of this popularity derives from “lawyer goggles”: a slick white man in a suit with what my colleague Stephen Bush describes as a “reassuring jawline”.

“Between men and women with equal experience, men tend to be seen as ‘more experienced’ so he [Starmer] may be benefiting from that,” says Professor Rosie Campbell, professor of politics and director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London.

“It’s a trend – this isn’t a new story, women only tend to become leaders when the men are falling over or fighting each other. That’s what happened with Theresa May, and even Margaret Thatcher originally wasn’t expected to win.”

She also points out the importance of media coverage (which, volume-wise, has favoured Starmer as shadow Brexit secretary since 2016 over years of Brexit wrangling), and notes that Lisa Nandy is often “written up” as the most impressive performer at hustings but without a corresponding poll lead.

Another theory circulating is that fixing Labour’s electoral crisis is the most pressing battle at this stage; that piecing the beleaguered party back together after four election defeats is the priority above “picking a woman”.

This reflects an aspect of the Democratic presidential race in the US, which is now effectively a contest between two white men in their seventies: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. (Elizabeth Warren, who left the race on 5 March, expressed sympathy for “all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years” for a female president.)

“Hillary’s loss, particularly to a man like Donald Trump, gave a lot of Americans great pause,” said former deputy national security adviser to Hillary Clinton, Nancy Soderberg, on the BBC Today programme. “In 2020, the number one issue that Democrats want is to defeat Donald Trump, and they will push aside other agendas to make sure that we have a candidate that can beat Donald Trump, and that’s why I think the women were pushed off the stage,” she argued.

Just as some in Labour would fight for a woman in “normal times” but are prioritising the end of factionalism, so Soderberg said that “in another era, we would perhaps not worry so much about putting forward a woman, but the number one prerogative in 2020 is to defeat Donald Trump, and they think a man can do it better than a woman”.

There are women in the Labour party – who, I hear, feel in the minority – despairing at their colleagues rallying around yet another man. Even if the scale of Labour’s election defeat should be its ultimate focus, voting for a white man in his fifties called Keir, over a century after the first Labour leader (Keir Hardie), suggests the belief that a woman just isn’t up to the job.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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