How the Labour leadership contest degenerated into misogyny

10 Sep 2015


The ballot for the Labour leadership contest has today closed. Before the result blurs our perspective of the contest, it is therefore worth reflecting on the campaign, especially its gender dimension.


At the beginning of the contest, it appeared as though the party was holding a truly progressive debate, involving two strong female candidates, overseen by a female interim leader. Indeed, up until the past month, the contest had only produced one notable sexist blooper. The culprit was Lord Falconer, who claimed in an interview with The Sunday Times that Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall were unlikely to win the contest, and that they should withdraw in order to prevent a Jeremy Corbyn victory. Aside from the blatant sexism of expecting women to placidly kowtow to the dominant male candidates, Falconer also suggested that – in the event of either a Cooper or Kendall victory – they would struggle to lead the party through difficult times, thus implying female weakness.


The latter phase of the contest saw three instances of blatant sexism, however. The first reared its ugly head on 23rd August when The Spectator published a blog written by Charles Moore entitled, “Do Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall look like leaders?” Moore’s article claims that Margaret Thatcher became the Leader of the Conservative Party because male MPs fancied her. The post then develops its misogyny by analysing Cooper’s appearance, citing her ‘slightly French crop’ and dress sense as her saving feature. The insipid Moore then suggests that Kendall ‘looks like a nice person, but not in a distinctive way’. These comments reduce successful female politicians, with proven records of contributing to national debate, to mindless mannequins.


Mere days later, in an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, Andy Burnham said that Labour would elect a female leader “when the time is right”. Unbeknown to Burnham, it seems, is the fact that the Conservatives elected a female leader in 1975. If the time was right for a female Conservative leader to be elected in 1975, the time is right for a female Labour leader to be elected in 2015. Burnham in one sentence degraded his female opponents, by suggesting that they were only capable of success through male handouts.


The next day, Jeremy Corbyn floated the idea of female-only carriages on trains. Sexual harassment on public transport is unacceptable and requires addressing. However, segregation of genders on trains is a complex form of victim blaming, telling women that, if they stand next to men on a train, they are obviously “asking for it”. Corbyn’s proposal also assumes that there are two, clearly defined genders: male and female. What if someone doesn’t identify as either gender? This proposal would create a mire of problems.


The examples given above are merely the sexist ‘highlights’ from the contest. Casual sexism also infiltrated the race, in a variety of ways. Yvette Cooper faced constant questioning about her marriage and her husband Ed Balls. Similarly, Liz Kendall faced excessive trolling on Twitter, as well as the misogyny of a Daily Mail journalist, who had the disrespect to ask how much the candidate weighed. Credit to Kendall, however, who simply re-tweeted the bile of the trolls, and told the aforementioned journalist to candidly “fuck off”.


Women have come so far in the past 100 years, but I guess just not far enough, certainty not enough to lead the Labour Party.

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