As of yesterday, it is certain that, for the second time in history, the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be a woman. What’s more, it is certain that, for the second time in history, the woman in question will be a Conservative. It is true that having a female Prime Minister is not in and of itself beneficial to women: Andrea Leadsom wants to scrap maternity pay for employees of the smallest businesses and Theresa May has been criticised for ‘allowing state-sanctioned abuse of women‘ at a detention centre. However, those of us on the left must ask why the Labour Party has been unable to elect a female leader in over 100 years of its history.
The most obvious reason for this is in the origins of the party. Labour grew out of industrial trade unionism and remained largely wedded to this until the 1980s. Granted, the party’s leaders were rarely drawn from this stock, but it cannot be denied that working-class industrial communities made up the primary constituency of the party during this period, and this was reflected in the policy priorities and internal demographics of the Labour Party. Startlingly, it was not until 1987 that Labour managed to elect over 20 female MPs – up from a low of 10 in 1983. It is undeniable that the culture of industrial trade unionism was inherently patriarchal and conservative in its nature, as was the makeup of many of the communities represented by this movement.
This is not to say that everyone who was part of the labour movement before the 90s was some kind of sexist brute, or that Labour didn’t achieve some great things for women – such as the Equal Pay Act. However, it is true that this masculine atmosphere both deterred and impeded women in seeking to rise up higher in the party. It is one of the most established social facts that people are more likely to choose someone who is similar to them when hiring or picking successors, so it is no surprise that male-dominated CLPs returned a male-dominated selection of MPs, who in turn choose a male-dominated top team.
However, there is a second, more subtle reason for Labour’s historical inability to elect a female leader. We are collectivists and idealists, whereas the Tories are individualists and pragmatists. In themselves, there is nothing wrong with collectivism or idealism, but they have the downside of creating a cultish tribalism. Desires for innovation and concerns about how the party operates are often brushed aside with calls for ‘solidarity’ and ‘unity’. This has become very apparent in recent weeks with the so-called ‘Labour Coup’, but any feminist. LGBT or race activist on the left will be able to recount how they have been told how their concerns are secondary to ‘the struggle’ and raising them is at best divisive and at worst subversive. This is the stifling conservatism that so often comes out of collectivism.
The reason this makes it even harder for a woman to be elected leader of Labour is that collective movements always need a strong central figure to unify around. You don’t need me to tell you that the attributes people desire in a strong leader – determined, authoritative, rational – are seen as masculine whereas ‘weak’ traits are seen as feminine. Because of these deeply ingrained attitudes, men have a huge headstart when it comes to being elected to represent the aims of a collective, and then the tribal mindset makes it even more difficult for a woman to challenge them – as we have seen with the torrents of violent and misogynistic verbal abuse directed at female MPs.
In contrast, the Tories worship the individual, and therefore when someone appears who has the ruthlessness and will to force their ideas through, they get to the top. There’s no question that misogynistic attitudes are more prevalent on the right than the left, but when a Thatcher or a May comes along, the Tories know who’s going to best prosecute their interests.
There will always be excuses for why Labour has not elected a woman, but excuses is all they are. You cannot seriously look at our most recent three leaders and conclude that they were all ‘the best person for the job’ at the time. Likewise, you cannot pretend that someone with the moral and intellectual weight of Yvette Cooper was a weaker candidate than Andy Burnham and deserved to come third. The fact is Labour is built on a masculine culture, and our collectivist methods in pursuing dogmatic idealism lend themselves to a tribal politics where who can shout the loudest and impose themselves upon others wins.
This is not to say that the Labour Party has not achieved excellent things for men and women, nor that its roots somehow invalidate them. Likewise, it is not saying that we are the only political party with a ‘woman problem’. What it is saying, though, is that it’s time we recognise the obstacles that hold us back from being a party where women have as good a shot as reaching the time as men. I’m damned if I know quite how we do this, but I do know that, out of the 5 people who I think could lead us to victory at the next election, 3 of them are women, and we have a better array of female talent on our benches than ever before. Electing a female leader won’t end our problems, but it would give the signal to our members that it is possible, and that there is another way of doing politics. It’s high time we did so.