Speaking on ITV earlier this week, leadership-hopeful Yvette Cooper reminded the viewer that the Labour Party has had ‘100 years of championing women’s equality’. For a party that prides itself on being progressive and inclusive, the lack of a permanent female leader in its annals of history is a niggle, an itch; yet this election might just push that itch into a weeping sore if a male double ticket is returned and five more years of WMOs (White-Male-Oxbridge) square up over the dispatch box (Andy Burnam’s alma mater is Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and, of course, David Cameron’s read P.P.E at Brasenose College, Oxford).
As Rafael Behr identifies in a recent article for The Guardian, it is not necessarily the lack of policy which killed Labour’s challenge for the 2015 election; it was the brand that lacked appeal. So, as Labour looks to ‘re-package’ itself in the hope of widening its appeal, we ask: does there need to be a woman on the ticket?
In his astute article Behr also identifies that fact that the about-to-be elected opposition leader may well never reach Downing Street. Those grassroots supporters looking for a white knight or ‘knightess’ may well have to console themselves with a steady-hand leader, someone who won’t rock the metaphorical boat, nor charge with a lancet into the bosom of Cameron. Behr suggests that this leader-to-be will just (excuse the plentiful medieval allusions) hold the fort as talent develops lower down the ranks, allowing a vivacity to emerge in 2020: a new dawn for a new decade.
But do some of the already announced female contenders for the leadership and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party already have the vivacity and panache that could inspire more people to join the party and shape the future of Labour for the better? Certainly Mark Ferguson, ex-editor of Labour List thinks so; he is now co-ordinating of Liz Kendall’s campaign for the leadership. Certainly Kendall has a fair amount of the ‘real world’ experience that the public cries out for in their politicians; she was head of the Maternity Alliance Charity and also spent time as Director of the Ambulance Service Network. Without doubt she has an impressive résumé and seems to be a modern, resilient woman bursting with energy and ambition. The formidable Tristram Hunt MP has also thrown his support behind Ms. Kendall, calling her a woman of ‘confidence’ and ‘courage’.
So what would Kendall or Cooper – the only two women to throw their names into the mix for leader, thus far, bring to the dispatch box? The academics behind a study published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2011, found that ‘while men may choose to obstruct and delay, women continue to strive to build coalitions and bring about new policies’. Perhaps then, a woman on the ticket could be the answer to the policy-stagnation that Labour has found itself in of late. Certainly, Joseph Folkman and Jack Zenger, posting the results of their study on the Harvard Business Review website, would agree; their study entitled ‘Are Women better Leaders than Men?’– published in 2012 – found that women outscored men on 12 of the 16 attributes that the study had set as ‘benchmarks’ for great leaders.
So far, so good for Kendall, Cooper and the equally inspirational Mary Creagh; this is also good news for the popular Stella Creasy and Caroline Flint who are challenging the front-runner Tom Watson for the position of Deputy Leader. In fact, Labour should rightly be encouraged that of the 7 candidates to put their names forwards for these positions of responsibility, 5 of them are female. It would thus be unrepresentative of the party’s ambitions and indeed the ambitious if Labour returned a male double ticket to run the party; however much respect Burnham and Watson are due, their investiture as a double-act for Labour would be a thorn on the side of the rose.
In 2007, Harriet Harman tried to change party rules to ensure that either the leader or deputy leader of the party had to be female (actually she still champions a leadership team of 3). Although this would have been not too large a jump from the introduction of all-female shortlists for prospective parliamentary candidates, the party baulked: too undemocratic. Now the process whereby nominations by MPs create a shortlist voted on my members, may not reflect the true desires of the Labour grassroots and could in a sense be equally undemocratic. It could be a real blow to party democracy and grassroots’ desire, if a popular candidate was deemed too inexperienced to garner the support of the 35 MPs needed to feature on the ballot. MPs should remember that just because you’ve proved you can stand the heat, it doesn’t mean you can start a fire.
So as the female hopefuls for leader and deputy leader go blazing on the campaign trail, knocking on doors in Westminster and harvesting the popular vote on Twitter, the grassroots look to see who MPs will allow them to elect. Labour does really need one woman on that ticket to square up against Cameron, Osbourne et al, let’s just hope the 58% of Labour MPs who are male agree.