24 Jul 2015

Is Andy Burnham really the best bet to see off Jeremy Corbyn?

I can spot sexism a mile off, and I’m not afraid to say it. But Lord Falconer – Charlie to his mates – is no sexist.

For those not paying attention to the increasingly-fascinating Labour leadership race, here’s what he said: “Neither Yvette [Cooper] nor Liz [Kendall] can steer the Labour party through the challenging few years ahead when we need a leader who can reach out to all wings of our party and provide unity. As a result, both Liz and Yvette are unlikely to beat Jeremy [Corbyn].”

The only one who can do that, according to Lord Falconer, happens to be a man – Andy Burnham.

Those comments were reported by the Times under the grossly misleading headline: “Women not tough enough to lead Labour,” and all hell has broken loose.

Liz Kendall has taken umbrage, tutting: “It is depressing to see a senior man in the party dismiss the contribution of women so easily. For Charlie to say that women somehow aren’t tough enough to lead the Labour party is a gross insult and, as for standing up to Jeremy Corbyn, I’m the only candidate who has been saying he would be a disaster for our party and that I wouldn’t serve in his shadow cabinet, unlike the candidate Charlie is supporting.”

Labour Party leadership candidates Jeremy Corbyn and Andy Burnham embrace as Yvette Cooper walks off stage after a hustings event in Stevenage

That candidate, as I said earlier, is Andy Burnham. So actually, what cheerful Charlie was saying was a statement of fact, based on YouGov’s opinion poll released early this week. It showed Corbyn triumphing in the final round, with Burnham six points behind. So the two women in the race aren’t, on the only evidence we have available, up to the job of seeing off Corbyn. That’s a great shame, because Labour has never had a female leader, as I’ve blogged before.

Cooper and Kendall will no doubt be depressed by their failure to gain traction, but some would argue that they only have themselves to blame. Where Corbyn was seen at first as the joker in the pack, he’s garnered support because no one is in any doubt about what he stands for, and his refusal to speak in soundbites appeals to a generation tired of identikit politicians.

By contrast, neither Cooper nor Kendall seem clear about what they believe, and while both may be proficient at delivering clips for television, there’s a lack of passion that’s worrying. Is this anything to do with their gender? I’ll probably get trolled for saying it, but women in the public eye tend to come in for more criticism than men, so many are as a result rather cautious fence-sitters. That’s not going to energise supporters.

But I’m afraid to tell Lord Falconer that while his candidate might have a better chance at seeing off Corbyn, he’s no better than the women at making a clear pitch to voters, or sounding like a normal human being rather than someone inside the Westminster bubble.

And it’s worth pointing out that the pollsters might be wrong… again, as they were at the general election. YouGov’s president Peter Kellner points out that Corbyn’s lead is “within the margin of error”. So Lord Falconer might be wrong after all. That still doesn’t make him a sexist.

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