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16 September 2016

When Jeremy Corbyn wins again, expect to hear a lot more about his “woman problem“

The women of the PLP are more likely to sit out the second phase of Corbyn's leadership. 

By Stephen Bush

There has been a shift in the mood even among the most committed of Corbynsceptics. Even a few weeks ago, you would still regularly be told that Jeremy Corbyn’s clash with Owen Smith would be “closer than everyone thinks”, with a slim few still making noises about a victory, or, at least, a reduction in the size of Corbyn’s mandate with the membership. On the part of Corbyn’s allies, some feared that a wholesale purge of their voters from the rolls might tip the balance in Smith’s way – although now, senior figures in the Corbyn campaign privately confirm that the party’s final figure of around 3,000 expulsions is about right and unlikely to decide the result.

Now the mood music has moved decisively – with Corbyn’s critics now talking exclusively about what happens when Corbyn wins. The leader’s office, for its part, is now firmly focused on planning for conference and the aftermath of Corbyn’s second victory.

Much attention is focused on who will make up Corbyn’s new shadow cabinet. There will not be wholesale changes, with the bulk of the shadow cabinet, dragooned in after resignations, believed to be operating effectively. Nonetheless, some of those who quit, and some who never joined the frontbench in the first place, will serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in his second phase as leader – among them, according to Paul Waugh over at the Huffington Post, at least one of the “great hopes” of Labour’s Corbynsceptic tendency, Dan Jarvis.

Staffers and MPs alike have noticed those MPs who, as Smith’s campaign has flatlined, have quietly removed themselves from the frontlines in a bid to make a return to the Cabinet as unembarrassing as possible. They all have something in common, too: not politics, but gender.

Despite Smith’s tendency for gaffes that have offended many women in the parliamentary Labour party  – one female Corbynsceptic MP recently told me that Smith had revealed himself as “sexist, stupid or both”  – it has been Labour’s female MPs who have stuck with the increasingly troubled Smith campaign. The chances of any of Lilian Greenwood, Heidi Alexander, or Kerry McCarthy returning to the shadow cabinet are somewhere between slim to non-existent, while, at a junior level, the likes of Thangam Debbonaire or Anna Turley making a return are unlikely, too. 

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In a way that will contribute to making Corbyn’s second year as leader easier than his first – although his remark to women’s conference last year that female MPs were more likely to tell him what was wrong face to face, rather than in the press, irked some of the attendees, there is a grain of truth in that none of the high-profile women who sit out the cabinet will embark on a prolonged period of negative briefing or public attacks on the leader.

But it will also lead to increasing conversation about Corbyn’s “woman problem”. “There will be a  [full] shadow cabinet,” one insider reflected, “But it will be a sausagefest.”

The big problem, however, will actually be Corbyn’s “man problem”. Although for a variety of reasons, Labour’s women MPs feel alienated from the leader, on the whole, the women of the PLP are to the left of the men of the PLP. As one put it: “On the whole, sisters are more worried about Jeremy’s competence, whereas it is more ideological [among the men]”. Just as last year, Corbyn’s attempts to accommodate Andy Burnham’s allies made the shadow cabinet top-heavy with men and less ideologically coherent, Corbyn will likely find that his new, male-dominated frontbench, is a source of frustration and division, as well criticism from outside.