With 16 women to 15 men in Labour’s new Shadow Cabinet, yesterday should have been a day that everyone determined to see greater gender equality – both in society and in the Labour Party – united and delighted. Instead, the new Leader saw push-back on an apparent redefinition of what constitutes a ‘top job’, a few crass comments from various sources about appointing on merit and even some of the women who said they didn’t want to serve blamed for the lack of women in what, let’s for the sake of argument, call the top jobs.
The women who have been appointed to the Shadow Cabinet include some new faces at the table including some top notch campaigners with considerable expertise in the areas they will cover – from Lucy Powell in Education, Kerry McCarthy in Defra and Heidi Alexander in Health. With members drawn from across the party, it was also a welcome attempt at unity. However, if – like me – you were looking for someone like Angela Eagle to be appointed Shadow Chancellor, as a former Treasury minister making a strong, credible candidate, it felt disappointing.
Having been met throughout the campaign with increasing fervour and passionate support, the kick back (including from some Corbyn supporters) will presumably have come as a shock to our newly, and resoundingly, elected leader. He also appeared to fail to have a response as to why he had made the decision when he was asked by an ITV crew about gender balance and the top jobs on his way out of parliament on Sunday night. Media presentation matters and waiting to release all the names at once would have made a massive difference. Corbyn’s campaign to win the leadership was driven by social media but – as too many politicians forget – most party members as well as voters get their political news through broadcast media and newspapers.
All successful leaders need someone who can tell them what they don’t want to hear. Then they need to listen to them. When it comes to his staff appointments Corbyn would be well served to make sure there is someone who can equality-proof his party policy. The policy announcement of his leadership campaign that I felt got the largest number of people most publicly exercised was the floating of a suggestion of women only carriages which were removed from the Tube network in the 1970s. And, yes, I know it was a suggestion and about opening a debate but it is not widely viewed as a solution to the underlying causes of male violence and sexual harassment against women.
The shadow cabinet announcements came after a leadership conference that saw no women on the platform, or speaking to conference and there were already rumblings about that and the lack of women elected. Yes, in relation to elected positions, to a certain extent that is democracy and yes, Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t leader then but no, it isn’t acceptable and this was the backdrop to the Shadow Cabinet announcements.
There are easy ways Jeremy Corbyn could ensure women in the party feel that he is serious about gender representation within the party. One is to make sure he backs up – with deeds not words – what he committed to in spirit with his commitment to a gender balanced Shadow Cabinet. Asking women members, and engaging with them and the organisations that represent them, about what changes they would like to build the inclusive party he has promised will be key.
With Labour Party Conference less than two weeks away, Jeremy Corbyn could gain back some credit on gender equality if he makes it clear to all male shadow ministers that they should not accept invitations to speak on male-only panels. The invitations will be coming in over the next week or so and not knowing who else is on the panel when is not a defence. That would be a welcome step in the right direction.
Fiona Twycross is a London Assembly Member