Written by Megan Howells, Publicity Officer and The Queen’s College Rep.
The Labour Party is, and always has been, the party for women. No other party has committed so strongly to the empowerment of women, socially, politically, and economically. However, although the Labour movement’s feminist achievements are rightly celebrated, it is an inescapable truth that there remains a noticeable absence of women at the very top of the Party. The Conservative Party has had two women leaders, while our party is still yet to have one. As of 2018, we have had the role of deputy leader for 96 years, yet a woman has only held that position for just over 9 years in total.
At National Conference this year, plans to elect a female deputy Labour leader were scrapped after its proposer, the Wirral West Constituency Labour Party, withdrew the proposal. Angela Marincowitz, a member of the constituency party, cited “disturbing reports” that some within the Party would use the election of the new deputy as a chance to promote division and undermine Jeremy Corbyn, making the election about Labour’s Brexit policy, the emergence of a new centre party or “whatever project [Corbyn’s opponents] think up” to sow disunity. What is the most saddening about this series of events is that a change within the party which would see a woman in one of the top leadership roles was prevented from happening due to the internal divisions within our party. We have allowed factionalism to spill over into the issue of gender representation.
This stands in stark contrast to the historical progress the Party has championed. The current Parliamentary Labour Party has more women MPs than all of the other political parties put together, and the Labour Shadow Cabinet is the first frontbench team in British history to have a female majority. Labour governments have consistently fought to empower women and it is no coincidence that every piece of progressive equality legislation has been introduced by Labour.
The Equal Pay Act 1970, fought for passionately by one of Labour’s most inspiring women Barbara Castle, was a watershed moment in gender equality in the United Kingdom, ensuring that women were not subjected to lesser pay and conditions by virtue of them being women. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 went further still, protecting women from discrimination in employment and education as well as featuring protections from harassment. The introduction of the minimum wage, the Sure Start initiative and the Human Rights Act under Blair were all of major importance for women, not to mention the arrival of all-women shortlists which doubled the number of female MPs between 1992 and 1997.
It would be hard to argue that there are simply no Labour women up for the job, with such indivdiuals as Diane Abbott, Harriet Harman, Mo Mowlam, Tessa Jowell, Betty Boothroyd, and Jo Cox among many others. The message of equality that we send out is simply not reflected in our leadership.
This apparent aversion to women in top positions became increasingly evident to me in the lead up to the Welsh Labour leadership contest over the summer. Eluned Morgan, Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales and Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning, faced incessant opposition to her leadership bid, with several AM’s refusing to afford her their support even though their preferred candidate had more than enough nominations. Morgan eventually won her place on the ballot following outgoing First Minister Carwyn Jones’ nomination, though he previously maintained that he would remain impartial. Having a woman on the ballot in Wales has not only broadened the debate but also provided young Welsh women like me with a strong political role model. It is unfortunate, however, that Morgan had to rely on Carwyn Jones’ reluctant support. Sadly, women just aren’t thought of as serious contenders for leadership roles.
There seems to be a clear solution to this problem and that lies in the creation of a leadership role for a woman, like that proposed by Wirral West. But above all, we must start taking female politicians seriously.