Only two weeks ago Labour had its greatest number of female MPs elected to Parliament and the Liberal Democrats restored some female balance to its Parliamentary Party following two years without any women MPs before Sarah Olney's victory in Richmond. While on the surface this continues to be a great advancement of the female cause neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats, the two main voices on the left of politics, have ever had female leaders.
Another example of this problem on the left occured just this week as the Lib Dems searched for a new leader. The hot favourite, Jo Swinson, announced to much disappointment that she had decided against standing and her statement revealed something interesting; “My many years of encouraging women to have the confidence to go for that exciting new role have taught me that women often don’t go for things when they should.” Going on to say that men often have the confidence but not the ability for the role; her statement reveals a challenge that women often have and it appears to be a challenge more prevalent on the left of politics.
There seems to be a history of capable, experienced and left learning female politicians being overlooked for leadership positions. In 2015 Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper both ran to be Labour leader, both highly talented and experienced members of Parliament, ended up being fourth and third respectively behind two men. A similar thing occurred in the deputy leader race in 2015 when Angela Eagle, another extremely experienced former minister, was overlooked.
A year later Angela found the confidence that Jo Swinson spoke of to challenge Jeremy Corbyn for leader. Days later however she was forced out of the race by backroom manoeuvres in favour of a man, Owen Smith, who went on to lose the leadership challenge anyway. Labour has famously never elected a female leader and when a women does stand the members or fellow MPs seem to judge potential female leaders by a far higher standard. One of Labour’s most prominent female names, Harriet Harman described it as, “not ok,” that Labour had only ever had male leaders labelling it “embarrassing misogyny.”
Despite Angela being an MP for over 13 years by that point and with a period of service within an actual Labour government she was overlooked twice for roles that, with her experience, she was well prepared for. Similarly for Liz Kendall, with 5 years’ experience by 2015 and shadow cabinet experience, and Yvette Cooper with 13 years’ experience and roles including Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Both women were overlooked by members for Jeremy Corbyn who despite being in Parliament for 30 years, had never held any office or ministerial role. Andy Burnham who also stood for leader in 2015, beating Kendall and Cooper, said of Labour having a female leader; “when the time is right, and when the right candidate comes forward.” This is evidence that despite Yvette Cooper in particular having similar experience to Burnham, the difference in sex seemed to make a difference.
An Ingrained Problem?
The decision by Jo Swinson, despite being the favourite for the position, is understandable when the difficulties and criticism of previous women from the left who chose to go for notable positions are considered. It appears that this is a problem uniquely applied to left leaning parties, although Nicola Sturgeon in particular is an exception, as the Conservatives and UKIP have both had female leaders however brief or unpopular their stay as leader was.
Is this down to purely a confidence issue in the women from the left who push for leadership positions or is there an inherent problem within leftist politics more generally? The evidence is damning, despite a record 123 current female Labour and Lib Dem MPs, no woman has ever held chancellor or shadow chancellor positions in either party. Women are often given stereotypically female professions to lead such as education or health in cabinets and shadow cabinets. All of Labour’s recent mayoral candidates were male and in 2016, 45 female Labour MPs wrote to Jeremy Corbyn to describe some horrific abuse and threats they had received.
It is no longer enough for Labour to publicise and praise their greater depth and numbers of female members of Parliament. It is time the structures, support and confidence was put in place for one of the many talented female MPs to reach the upper levels of Labour and Lib Dem hierarchy. Instead of Jo Swinson opting for Deputy Leader, she should be given the confidence to push for the top job. Instead of an all male top team of front benchers, a woman should be given the job of chancellor and given the opportunity to showcase her skills as leader. The Conservative Party makes women leaders, it’s time for the liberal left to elect their own prominent female leader.