Harriet Harman is proposing changing the Labour Party constitution to make it mandatory for either the Leader or Deputy Leader positions to be held by a woman. According to shadow cabinet sources Harman has begun consulting on the proposal with female colleagues, and has circulated an e-mail outlining her thinking.
A spokeswoman for Harman confirmed the idea will form part of the deputy leader’s submission to the Refounding Labour consultation, currently being managed by Ed Miliband’s senior parliamentary lieutenant Peter Hain. She has written to Hain suggesting the establishment of a working group to ensure gender balance within the leadership team.
One suggestion being advocated is that two deputy leaders be appointed, with at least one of those being permanently selected via an all women shortlist. Another option being considered is for male or female candidates to have their candidatures automatically voided in circumstances where leader and deputy leadership elections are run simultaneously.
The proposal has caused consternation among some senior colleagues, a number of whom believe the idea would prove politically divisive and impractical to implement.
“Is the Labour Party really going to move from being a meritocracy and democracy and embrace these proposals,” said one insider. “It’s ridiculous,” said another. “If you’re talking about building mandatory representation into a situation where you’ve got 500 or 600 parliamentary seats that’s one thing. But we’re talking about to the two most senior positions in the Party. You can’t just stitch those up.”
Others were critical of the fact the plan had been circulated exclusively to female shadow cabinet members.
Some of those sceptical of the proposals dismissed the plan as nothing more than a ploy by Harman to protect her own role, and pointed to rumours circulating at Westminster that she could soon face a challenge for the deputy leadership position. Last year Harman was the subject of negative briefing from sections of the PLP, and members of Ed Miliband’s team, over her handling of the Phil Woolas affair.
However, she won plaudits for her tenure as acting leader, and remains popular and respected amongst Labour activists.
A spokeswoman for the deputy leader declined to comment on criticism of the plan, or elaborate on the proposals, choosing instead to refer journalists to a recent Tribune article on the subject.