14 May 2015

Women in Labour: will this pregnant pause ever end?

It’s a very strange thing, but the party which, at its first ever parliamentary meeting, deemed that women’s suffrage was a priority, which led the charge on the Equal Pay Act, and which introduced all-women shortlists has never succeeded in electing a woman as leader.

There have been deputy leaders of Labour aplenty. But so far, it remains an embarrassment to a party with equality at its core that a full quarter of a century after Britain’s first female prime minister left Downing Street, Labour has only ever been led by men.

If Nigel Farage falls on his sword (again), even UKIP could end up pipping it to the post with a female leader.

So for many Labour MPs it’s a matter of urgency to get a woman elected this time round. So what are their chances?

Britain's shadow Chancellor Balls, shadow Health Secretary Burnham and shadow Home Secretary Cooper clap and sing during a rendition of the 'Red Flag' at the close of the Labour party's annual conference in Brighton

Yvette Cooper is clearly a strong contender, but right from the off the worry is she’s too closely associated with the mistakes of the past.

When I was a cub reporter and she an aspiring journalist, I sat next to her in the Independent newsroom, and remember her enthusing about Gordon Brown’s economic genius. She was a true believer.

For Labour to win again, surely the leader needs to make a decisive break from all that.

That’s why Leicester MP and shadow health minister Liz Kendall might offer hope to some of her colleagues.

Andy Burnham And Ed Balls Face Labour Questions

She’s been impressively forthright and free-thinking in the interviews she’s done since – with rather alarming haste – declaring her interest in the job at the weekend.

But if Cooper’s drawback is the experience that allies her too closely to the ancien regime, Kendall has the opposite problem: she’s only been an MP for five years.

Where Tony Blair might have been a relative unknown, he’d started to craft his political philosophy before the sudden death of John Smith in 1994 propelled him into the top job. His “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” speech was made the year before that, when he was shadow home secretary.

Although Kendall has made some interesting – and decidedly Blairite – noises on the use of the private sector to deliver NHS services, her thinking isn’t nearly as fully-formed as Blair’s was at the same stage.

There may be more to recommend Mary Creagh.


She’s not been much talked-about in the Westminster village recently, which may actually work in her favour. Kendall may suffer from having been over-hyped.

Creagh, like Kendall, is of Blairite tendency, and so may be able to reach the parts of the country Ed Miliband failed to. She’s shown talent and tenacity, for example during the horsemeat scandal, and yet she was demoted by Miliband, largely for ideological reasons.

While she may be too New Labour for a lot of the old guard, she at least as the merit of being MP for Wakefield, and so could make a decent fist of appealing to the northern England seats where Labour is under threat from UKIP.

And unlike Kendall, she has the benefit of experience on her side, having been in Parliament since 2005.

If those three fail, though, once again Labour women may have to put up with one of their number ascending to the deputy leadership.

And here the field is not only crowded but also very female. Stella Creasy, Angela Eagle and Caroline Flint are all expected to run.

It may be a good bet, too, that there will be a female London mayor – Dame Tessa Jowell – before a woman is installed as party leader.

Tessa Jowell, former shadow minister for the Olympic Games, speaks during a segment about the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Labour Party annual conference in Manchester

Whatever the leadership elections hold, it’s certainly the case that Labour’s women need to shout even louder.

Certainly, “Amplify”, billed as “The Voice of Labour Women” on the party website seems somewhat muted. Under the heading “Latest Stories”, the most recent entry is dated July 1, 2014.

Oh dear.

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