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Left behind: sexism in the Labour movement

Left behind: sexism in the Labour movement
9 min read

When it comes to equality, Labour talks a good game but a closer look at the treatment of women within their own political circle reveals there is work to be done before the political left can claim gender parity.

Two Keirs, zero women.

The fact that UK Labour has never elected a woman as leader must, in 2021, be a source of shame. Not only has this glass ceiling remained firmly in place, but when women do stand for the party’s top position, they are ranked last: Margaret Beckett in 1994, Diane Abbott in 2010, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall in 2015, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy in 2020. Angela Rayner was elected as deputy leader last year; Harriet Harman and Beckett have both been deputy and acting leader. Yet no woman has reached the very top following a vote of members.

“It’s quite difficult to justify – I mean, you can’t justify it,” says Harriet Harman, Labour’s ‘Mother of the House’.

Asked what the root cause might be, Harman points to an explanation also offered by Jess Phillips: “it’s because women in the Labour Party are subversive … they’re not trying to do it on the men’s terms”.

Diane Abbott, the first Black woman elected to parliament, has a slightly different take on the same theme. Comparing Labour’s record to the Tories, who have picked two female leaders in Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, she suggests: “If you really are the party of the establishment, you perhaps feel more able to do something unexpected.”

As chair, deputy leader, national co-ordinator and shadow first secretary of state, Angela Rayner is currently Labour’s most senior woman. She believes that “imposter syndrome”, whereby one doesn’t believe themselves to be capable of something even when they are, has something to do with this failure. “We always think it’ll be left to somebody else,” she says.

Many had expected Rayner to run for the leadership last year and, as a charismatic figure of the soft left, she could have been stiff competition for Keir Starmer. Would she, one day, like to be Labour’s first female leader?

“I always feel really bad when I say no, I don’t want to become leader of the Labour Party, because it’s as if I’m saying I want a woman in there but I don’t want it to be me, sort of thing. Where’s your aspiration, Ange?” she asks herself. “I stood for deputy leader because I’ve got great organising skills, and I think that I’m really good on the ground, going out there. I don’t want to be tied to the dispatch box.”

Rayner adds: “As a home help and as a carer, informal and formal, a lot of my life, I always feel at my best when I’m helping others. I don’t feel at my best when I’m thinking I’m the big ‘I am’.”

When asked about the party never selecting a woman as leader, most Labour MPs hurriedly make clear that they think Starmer is doing an excellent job and draw attention to his appointment of Anneliese Dodds as the first female shadow Chancellor.

Rayner praises Starmer for empowering women in the party and highlights that in their first conversation as leader and deputy, which took place while Boris Johnson was ill with coronavirus, Starmer raised the need for “a system that means you take over if I’m incapacitated”. It “showed immediately that he respected me”, she says.

Despite the lack of a female leader, Labour has an impressive record in getting women elected to the House of Commons. Thanks in part to its pioneering use of all-women shortlists (AWS), there are now more women than men in Labour’s parliamentary party. There is a fight, however, to keep AWS. The majority female Parliamentary Labour Party complicates the situation.

Labour is adopting a proactive approach: it is understood the party has taken legal advice on continuing with AWS, and has set up a “working group” with Rayner, Welsh deputy leader Carolyn Harris, Scottish deputy Jackie Baillie, equalities lead Marsha de Cordova, members of the National Executive Committee including Alice Perry to explore ways of upholding the practice.

There is more work to be done in selections outside of parliament, however. When Diane Abbott stood in Labour’s London mayoral selection on the same platform as Jeremy Corbyn at the same time, she came third. Even when factional forces are in their favour, women struggle to get picked. The metro mayors are all men.

Tracy Brabin, one of Labour’s two female mayoral candidates, tells me she is “frustrated” that so few women have been selected. “When it comes to selection, the resources need to be put in place for women to step up.” The West Yorkshire candidate is hopeful that the rise of remote working amid Covid will improve that situation.

The misogyny experienced by elected women may be putting off potential politicians. When Brabin wore an off-the-shoulder dress in the Commons last year, criticism forced her to clarify on Twitter that her attire did not make her a “slag”, “hungover”, “tart”, “about to breastfeed”, “slapper”, “drunk” or “just been banged over a wheelie bin”. “A shoulder sent the Twittersphere into meltdown,” she says. “It was a sexualisation of a woman politician, to diminish and demean. And I do feel ’twas ever thus.”

They called me a liar. They called me a fantasist. They even asked for my medical records. Can you believe that?

It is worse still for those facing prejudice along other axes of oppression. Asked about experiencing misogyny from within the movement when running for the leadership, Abbott says: “It was as much about race as anything else.” She receives more abuse from all quarters because of “that combination of both racism and misogyny”.

Unequal treatment comes not just from the press and social media, but also from within the party. Although shadow minister Tulip Siddiq tells me misogyny has “definitely come a lot from the media”, she adds: “I was pretty shocked when, not long ago, a man was asked to go on [a TV news programme] and explain my brief that I hold. And that was a decision made by internal staff in the Labour Party.” The subject of the media appearance was “an issue that I had worked really hard on and lobbied on” and being overlooked on that occasion “really, really upset me”, Siddiq says.

For the rank-and-file, perhaps the most obvious form of misogyny in Labour appears to take shape in the disciplinary process. Complainant Ava Etemadzadeh first approached the whips’ office in December 2015 about alleged sexual harassment by then-MP Kelvin Hopkins, who denies claims he rubbed himself against her. When he quit the party five years later, the party’s disciplinary process had still not been concluded by Labour. During the investigation, she was not allowed to use her own lawyer, but had a Labour-appointed barrister represent her at an August 2019 hearing.

“They allowed [the panel] to cross examine me for eight bloody hours. It was awful,” Etemadzadeh says. “They called me a liar. They called me a fantasist. They even asked for my medical records. Can you believe that? And then they said ‘oh yeah, you’re basically doing this for your own political career.’” Another hearing was supposed to take place in January, but the ex-MP left the party that month.

The new independent complaints process mandated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s antisemitism report will also apply to allegations of sexual harassment. This is long-awaited by many women in the party. But Sarah Owen, an ex-GMB official from the 2019 intake of Labour MPs, says while an independent system would help, “I don’t think it’s the silver bullet”. It amounts to “addressing the problem once it’s already occurred – and we need to ideally stop the problem from occurring in the first place”.

Sexual harassment lawyer Deeba Syed agrees: “The issue is bigger than the complaints process”. A fair system is merely getting the basics right. “Am I optimistic it’s going to solve any sexual harassment problem in the Labour Party? I don’t think it will, because you need to have a preventative approach,” she says.

It all contributes towards a culture that just doesn’t feel friendly towards women and particularly young women

Syed believes that tackling sexual harassment in Labour requires education, gender parity at all levels, a new advisory group, collecting data and information from those who have experienced it, addressing the problem of retaliatory behaviour, ensuring confidentiality for complainants and crucially a system allowing effective whistleblowing rather than direct complaints only.

The most damning recent evidence of misogyny within the Labour movement came with the September 2020 publication of Karon Monaghan QC’s report on the Labour-affiliated GMB. It found the trade union, one of the country’s largest, to be “institutionally sexist”, and sexual harassment to be “endemic”. GMB national president Barbara Plant apologised to members and said “real and lasting change is needed”. Six months on, a taskforce for implementing the report’s recommendations has been set up, has met and will do so again shortly.

Plant says she is “optimistic that Karon’s report will be a valuable tool in creating long-term transformational change throughout the union”. Others in the GMB are less positive. The problem of regional secretaries being all-male until a few months ago cannot be quickly addressed, nor can conflict among senior management. Now a general secretary race is taking place that may well see another man chosen to lead the union – partly because GMB rules ban most campaigning, which is a disadvantage to women.

“If GMB members elect a man, after that report, it speaks volumes,” GMB MPs’ staff rep Caitlin Prowle says. “Obviously Unison has just elected a woman, which is great. But in general, you look around, whether within GMB or the union movement more widely, and everyone you see doesn’t look like you … It all contributes towards a culture that just doesn’t feel friendly towards women and particularly young women.”

The wider problem, described by a senior trade union source who did not want to be named, is that “the men in our movement don’t have the lived experience, and they just don’t seem to be able to get their heads around – in an emotionally intelligent or empathetic way – what that lived experience might be”.

Misogyny is alive and well in the Labour movement. That is not to say it is worse than that on the right – far from it. However, there are specific challenges still to overcome beyond politics generally being steeped in poor and discriminatory behaviour.

Labour will soon have an independent complaints system. It has established a diversity and inclusion board after conducting a staff diversity audit. Christina McAnea is now head of Unison, the biggest union. There are many sources of hope for Labour women – but, as Angela Rayner says, we must “always strive to be better”.


Sienna Rodgers is the editor of Labour List.

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