Does the Labour Party have a problem with women in leadership?

Caitlin Prowle
© UK Parliament/Mark Crick

Women in leadership – the itch that the Labour Party just can’t seem to scratch. It’s the promise we tell ourselves, but never quite stick to. It’s the soundbite we all use, but rarely put into action when it actually matters. Labour’s leadership election is in full swing and, while the current line-up is still dominated by women, Keir Starmer was the first candidate to make the ballot and he is the definite favourite of many.

The first hurdle of MP nominations saw him storm ahead with over 60 more nominations than the required number, and YouGov polls have him as the clear winner. He is far ahead of the others in terms of local party nominations. It’s a long campaign, of course, but these early signs send a clear message about the direction of this election, and an even clearer one about the way we all think about leadership.

What has interested me most about the early stages of this election is the language used. Starmer has the ‘authority’ we need to win, we’re told. He is ‘Prime Ministerial’, a ‘safe pair of hands’ and – perhaps the most gendered of the bunch – a ‘statesman’. To me, these simple combinations of words and phrases don’t just serve to compliment the frontrunner of a leadership race. They tell a story of a desire for masculinity at the top of our party and an internalised misogyny that spreads across our whole movement. This isn’t even a new concept; academics have been talking about the inherent masculinity of leadership features for generations, with studies showing that in most contexts when we say ‘leader’, we really mean ‘man’.

I don’t blame Labour members for building perceptions of leadership on principles that fundamentally favour men – after all, we’re all basing our votes on decades upon decades of male Labour leadership. None of us know what a Labour Party led by a woman looks like, because we’ve never given ourselves the opportunity to see it.

This isn’t about Starmer. It’s not about any individual running in this election, or in any other. And it’s certainly not about electing a woman for the sake of electing a woman. We all want to elect the best possible candidate to rebuild our reputation, to lead us through the next five years of painful opposition and to win us a Labour government. But why is it that every time we come to elect our next leader, that best possible candidate is never a woman? What does it say about our movement that, when it matters most, we can’t seem to allow ourselves to see a woman as the person we should all be following?

I grew up in a South Walian family that had the Labour Party at its very heart. Our bedtime stories were about our party’s brave, fierce and powerful heroes; the time my granddad heard Aneurin Bevan speak in his hometown of Tredegar; the fierce fight to elect Keir Hardie in neighbouring Merthyr Tydfil; the way Clement Attlee and his government transformed our community and country. But we never heard about the women.

Wherever you look in our movement’s journey, women are there because women were always there, in the shadows of history. They were the pioneering women behind the Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888, years before the Labour Party even formed and yet so often forgotten. They were the socialist suffragettes, fighting for enfranchisement based on neither gender nor class. They were the women of Ford Dagenham, refusing to take no for an answer and demanding equal pay. 

We need a woman to lead us now more than ever. The Prime Minister is a known misogynist, set to lead his party’s tenth year of government, building on a legacy that saw austerity hit vulnerable women harder than anyone. Yet the Labour Party won’t elect a woman for leader until we challenge ourselves to be better. I’m proud that our party has stood up to champion equality when it matters most, but I’m also not afraid to say that we have a problem with women, and it’s time to confront it. This election gives us that opportunity. I hope we take it so that, when I have grandchildren of my own, the stories I tell will include brave, fierce and powerful women too.

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