Harriet Whitehead is a third year, Philosophy BA student. I am interested in politics and international affairs. More specifically in discussions surrounding freedom of speech and women’s rights. I hope to study this in the future.
In over a hundred years of existence, the Labour Party has never elected a female leader. This is unlikely to be random coincidence. Top female MPs, within the Labour party itself, have been critical of its failure to support a female leader, outright stating ‘misogyny’ as the cause of this exclusion.
In terms of figures, the likelihood of Labour electing a female leader should have risen, with the number of female MPs in the party at an all time high at 45%. Hence the question arises as to why the Tories have had two female leaders serve as Prime Minister (including current Prime Minister, Theresa May) with a meagre 21% of their MPs being female. Before the 1997 election, Labour introduced all-women shortlists, yet in regard to leadership the same system is not implemented.
I will therefore analyse why the Conservatives have had this success, in order to explore where Labour might have fallen short. But first, I note the following.
The purpose of this piece is not to suggest that a female leader is the end goal. Certainly, a female Prime Minister does not inevitably entail the fall of patriarchy, just as the election of Barack Obama to President of the United States did not mean the end for racism. Indeed, the alt-right reactionary movements now seen surfacing throughout the West certainly suggest otherwise. That withstanding, I maintain that seeing a woman in power creates a hope for progression and a platform for equality, at the very least. Hence, I argue that it seems reasonable to forward the ‘put your money where your mouth is’ method of electing a woman to party leader. This shows (at least superficially in terms of public perception) that your party stands for gender equality.
Given this, we must question why the Conservatives have succeeded where Labour has failed.
Labour has been notoriously critical of the Conservatives failure to promote social equality; evoking the Tories long standing reputation for being an ‘old boys club’ wherein wealthy white men, assured in their privilege, do very little to get the top jobs. This is likely close to the truth. The Conservatives have a weak record of electing female MPs and Labour have done far more in terms of practically implementing polices to advocate gender equality in its history. However, the Tories network of the social elite has somehow allowed for female leadership.
A more cynical view might argue that Thatcher and May’s elections have been premeditated moves to appease public scrutiny. Indeed, both women are disturbingly palatable to the more right-wing factions of the Party, in terms of race, age and education. Moreover, they have not been vocal feminists, having both remained eerily quiet on issues surrounding women’s rights.
Taken in their political context, I argue that these elections have been less calculated than suggested; they are the effect of circumstance rather than the candidates themselves. Both their initial elections were marred by unpopularity; Thatcher was at first elected after the Winter of Discontent (whereby the Labour Party were virtually unelectable) and her main opposition was the unpopular Edward Heath. Similarly, post – Brexit, May came to power in a turbulent time with her snap-election losing the majority.
The Conservatives female leadership has come about less purposefully than it might ostensibly seem: they have simply slipped through the cracks. Consequently, it seems that there has been very little active intention to elect female leaders in both the main parties.
One might propound the idea that (given the seemingly arbitrary nature of the Conservatives female leadership) there has never been a suitable candidate for a female Labour leader. Yet, having existed for over a century and had many women in senior positions, including Deputy-leader, it seems an overly charitable explanation for the Labour Parties failings.
Ultimately, Labour’s failure to elect a female leader is due to the inherent sexism rife in its party. Female Labour MPs have spoken about the abuse they are subject to online, including receiving vile messages and rape threats, but the prejudice also exhibits itself in the Labour Party itself. MP Jess Phillips argues that Labour ‘see women as poor people who need saving’. It seems Labour will not be ready to elect a female leader while this toxic myth persists.
Phillips is not alone in this critique. Liz Leffman further described this ‘blindspot’ in her own party. Due to the fact that the party has promoted gender equality, she suggested that they have overlooked the state of their own affairs and failed to be self-critical. Seemingly, there is an inherent sexism that resides within the Labour party. The parties failed introspection and consequent priggish attitude to activism has led it to deny women the top job.
Labour’s continuous failure to elect a female leader marks a clear discrimination that the party desperately attempts to cover. But no amount of campaign smoke-screening and flowery rhetoric can hide the ugly truth that resides within Labour: the party only want male leaders.
> Thatcher’s Britain: The Politics and Social Upheaval of the 1980s, Richard Vinen (2010)
> Harriet Harman in an interview at the Hay Festival
Harriet Harman in an interview at the Hay Festival
Picture from the Labour Press.