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Labour leadership: can the Labour party finally elect a woman leader?

Labour currently has more female MPs in parliament than male MPs, but it’s never elected a woman as party leader. Marie Le Conte looks at why that might be, and if it could be all set to change.

It isn’t just that the Labour party has never elected a woman as leader; in every leadership contest, female candidates have consistently ended up last. In 2010 it was Diane Abbott coming fifth out of five; in 2015, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper losing out to both Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham.

This is why so many people are watching the current Labour leadership election with bated breath. As things stand, there are three candidates: Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy.

This gives the party’s members a choice between two women and one man, so is Labour’s woman curse finally coming to an end?

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So far, it isn’t looking great: at the time of writing, Starmer is leading on all fronts, after having gained nominations from 88 MPs, 87 local branches of the party and six affiliated unions and societies. Long-Bailey is a fairly distant second with – respectively – 33, 44 and four nominations, and though Nandy is slowly building momentum, she remains far behind.

When the results of the leadership contest are announced in early April, we may yet again see a man manage to come first, but how has it come to this? “I don’t think there’s a simple explanation,” says Dr Meryl Kenny, a senior lecturer in gender and politics at the university of Edinburgh.

“It’s a party that’s grown out of industrial, male-dominated trade unionism; and collectivist class-based politics. There might also arguably be a sense of complacency, given its high numbers of women in the parliamentary party, especially compared to competitor parties.”

Labour leadership contest: Harriet Harman has served as acting leader, but can the Labour party elect a woman as leader?
Labour leadership contest: Harriet Harman has served as acting leader, but can the Labour party elect a woman as leader?

This is a fair point, and one worth looking at in further detail: while it is true that Labour is the only major British party never to have had a female leader, it has a much better record in other areas. In fact, the election of 2019 brought 104 female Labour MPs into parliament, compared to 98 male ones.

In comparison, 364 Conservative MPs were elected last year, and only 87 of them are women, which amounts to less than a quarter. The SNP isn’t faring that well either, as men still represent two-thirds of their parliamentarians down in Westminster.

Still, both have managed to get some women at the top, and it really should be time for Labour to follow suit, even if the underlying issues go beyond the party itself.

Kenny explains: “The position of the party leader is a masculinised one – associated with being authoritative, strong, rational, etc – I think you see some of this dynamic in coverage of Keir Starmer versus Rebecca Long-Bailey, who often gets framed as a ‘puppet’ being controlled by more powerful men.”

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Similarly, women are often at risk of being seen as caretakers when they do get elected. In what has been dubbed “the glass cliff”, women are more likely to get promoted to senior positions (in and out of politics) when the men who came before them made a mess, and need someone to clean it up.

Theresa May is an obvious example, as she came in after David Cameron caused Brexit by mistake, and was seen as the more responsible candidate of the lot. On the left, both Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman have been acting leaders of the Labour party, but only after one male leader died and another one stood down after losing an election.

To put it bluntly: even if Long-Bailey (or Nandy) defeats the odds and gets elected in April, she will inherit a weak and fractious party, and her task of bringing Labour back into government will be hard, if not impossible in one term.

This mirrors one of the first studies done on the “glass cliff” back in 2004, which showed that law students were more likely to appoint a female counsel to a “high-risk” case. Or, as Kenny puts it: “women tend to be excluded from leadership when the post is desirable – international research suggests that women are more likely to get a chance to lead in times of political crisis, usually when parties are out power or losing favour with voters”. Remind you of anything?

That being said - just because a woman winning now would be bittersweet doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be encouraged. After all, as Kenny explains, “having women at the top does send a powerful symbolic message about who is fit to lead”.

Given that the current prime minister was once accused of groping a female journalist (a claim Johnson denied) and previously called single mothers “uppity and irresponsible”, a female leader of the opposition could be a welcome addition to the House of Commons.

Representation shouldn’t be seen as the be-all and end-all of feminism in politics, but especially in this context, wouldn’t it be a hell of a step in the right direction?

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This feature was first published on 4 February

Images: Getty