As Labour reflects on its dismal election defeat and gears up for another leadership contest, one thing is abundantly clear: it needs a woman as leader.
Labour needs a woman for a variety of reasons, but most importantly because it has never, with the exception of a brief interim period, had one. The party is soon to be 120 years old. It’s mortifying that, while the Tories have had not one, but two female prime ministers, the Labour movement, which claims to seek to liberate society’s most downtrodden and vulnerable, is yet to have a woman lead it. What’s that about?
The answer is endemic gender bias. Labour’s links to the trade union movement, historically not without its machismo or its sexist dinosaurs, have played a significant role. The left of the party’s traditional emphasis on class liberation, while sidelining women’s liberation, is another.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been some good, feminist, Labour men, or that manifestos over the years have not included some solid feminist policies – we have Labour to thank for the Equal Pay Act and the Equality Act, and Sure Start centres. Jess Phillips has spoken powerfully about the difference these centres have made to her life. In power, Labour strengthened domestic violence legislation, increased support for carers, doubled maternity pay and helped low-income families through tax credits. Changes to the shortlists system saw 101 female Labour MPs elected to parliament in 1997. Yet when it comes to the upper echelons of the party, progress has been slow and clunking, and the party dawdles behind many of its global counterparts. Meanwhile in Finland, Sanna Marin has just become prime minister at the age of 34.
When you say that the next leader of the Labour party should be a woman – as I have on a regular basis for years – the response I usually get is that whoever is chosen should simply be the best person for the job, regardless of gender (a set of principles Labour has apparently stuck to historically). This argument is usually made by – you guessed it – men, who seem to also always be of the opinion that the best person for the job is a man. Not all men, of course, but a certain type of man on the left. At university, we called them brocialists, or manarchists.
Thankfully there are others on the left, men and women, who do recognise Labour’s urgent need for a woman and that there are many brilliant women in the Labour party. Perhaps if Corbyn had stood aside for one of them in 2017 after he lost that election, as lots of us felt he should, Labour wouldn’t be in this position. Many possess qualities necessary in a good opposition leader: intelligence, assertiveness, life experience, chutzpah, confidence, creativity and empathy. Whoever becomes leader should not be from London and needs to speak human – a language in which privately educated male politicians are rarely fluent.
To be fair to Corbyn, he has helped nurture young, female talent in the party.
By the very fact of failing to gain or retain power, Labour’s last three leaders have not only failed the electorate, but have failed women. That is not to say that they were not kind men with good ideas and a commitment to the cause – I am grateful to all of them in different ways, especially Corbyn, for allowing me to vote against the austerity that has harmed so many women – but I am angry that women still face so many barriers in politics. It still feels as if a man will get the job because he is a man; a woman despite the fact she is a woman.
This week the UK fell six places in the global rankings for gender equality. Now that a mendacious misogynist is governing with a large majority, having a woman as counterpoint is even more urgent. Women have borne the brunt of austerity policies, and women will have to pick up the slack when the health and social care system crumbles. Like Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, she must take no prisoners. By the very fact of being there, getting on with the job competently and confidently, she can expose Boris Johnson in all his pathetic deficiencies.
Labour’s voter base has changed. Young women are far more likely to back Labour – 65% of them, according to YouGov. Yet the focus has been overwhelmingly on the so-called Workington man, and politicos still speak of the “women’s vote” when the average voter is, in fact, a woman. It seems plain to me that it is women who terrify Johnson the most. He has a woman problem. He is unable to emotionally commit to them, spent his formative educational years separated from them and has revealed his contempt for them again and again. A friend of mine once said that rolling your eyes in contempt at pathetic male behaviour can feel more powerful a response than ranting and raving. I’d add pointing and laughing to that robust critique, when required. A woman with a sense of humour, who can speak human, who can hold her ground – we all know women like this in our personal and professional lives. She can’t be so very hard to find in the Labour party, can she? I can think of at least three.
• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist