Pond Life

Labour’s women outshine the men

Simon Heffer

Only a political anorak would get very far in naming current high-profile male Labour MPs. Keir Starmer, or course; and running a where-are-they-now feature would turn up somebody called Ed Miliband, who used to be leader and still hangs around the front bench to find something to do in early middle age. And, er, that’s about it. Anyone who says “Jeremy Corbyn” is, I regret to say, disqualified. He had the whip withdrawn and sits as an independent, following disquiet about some of his views.

No effort at all is required to list prominent Labour women: they trip off the tongue. Angela Rayner; Jess Phillips; Lisa Nandy; Rachel Reeves; Stella Creasy; Harriet Harman; Liz Kendall; Yvette Cooper – and so on. Women are carrying the Labour party. They get the message over on television and on the radio. They have the human touch and can relate to, rather than alienate, the average voter. And, thus, they tend to persuade people to vote Labour (although Boris Johnson is doing an impressive job with that too). It’s on women that Labour must depend if it is to stand a chance of forming even a minority government after the next election.

In fact, so long as women have been in parliament, it has always been like this. Even when Labour had all those supposedly brilliant ex-Oxford dons on its front bench – the Wilsons, Crossmans and Croslands, and big beasts such as the Healeys, Jenkinses and Callaghans – one woman stood out: Barbara Castle, who often ran rings around them all.

In the generation before her, the grey men of the Attlee Labour party were likewise cast into shadow by Ellen Wilkinson, who died tragically young in 1947 – effectively from overwork – but not before making a legendary reputation, first as the MP for Jarrow and then as Minister of Education in Attlee’s administration. And after Mrs Castle left front-line politics upon Wilson’s retirement in 1976, her place as Labour’s female standard bearer was taken by Shirley Williams.

Yet every woman I have named (and quite few others during the Blair and Brown years, such as Jacqui Smith, Margaret Beckett, Clare Short, Mo Mowlam and Tessa Jowell) all had something in common apart from being stand-out Labour MPs: none became leader of her party, let alone prime minister. When you consider that Labour has since Keir Hardie always boasted of being the party of progress, it hasn’t progressed very far when – 47 years after Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party – it has failed to choose a woman to lead it into a general election.

Why? For one, Labour’s grass roots, trades unionists, were for decades notoriously reactionary and conservative: most of those joining unions were men, often men with a backward idea of a woman’s place. Similarly, until the 1980s, unions were not especially welcoming or helpful to people from ethnic minorities, another group the Conservative Party has long been successful at recruiting and promoting.

But unions have changed. It has long been common for women to be general secretaries of unions;  indeed the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress itself is Frances O’Grady, in position since 2013. From the 1990s, Labour too tried to change, adopting women-only shortlists and quotas for shadow cabinet positions, much to the chagrin of the mediocre men who still populate the party’s front bench.

The men in the Labour party, to judge by their dismal electoral record (none has led the party to a general election victory since 2005), are not exactly fit for purpose. But you could argue that neither is the sisterhood, which has singularly failed to exploit the failings of Labour’s men and advance the careers of its women.

When the sisterhood was not quite of the strength it is now, the fate of Labour’s women was almost entirely in men’s hands. Men jealous enough of their own careers to hold women back. This level of prejudice – and that was really all it was – prevented such men from seeing the electoral benefits to Labour of having best candidate to lead them, not just the best male candidate. Would Barbara Castle really have been a worse prime minister than Jim Callaghan? Would Harriet Harman really have been a worse leader than Ed Miliband, never mind Corbyn? But now, Labour’s present generation of women are chipping away at the testosterone-drenched edifice that is the leadership of their party. Surely it won’t be long before one breaks through British politics’ most notorious glass ceiling?

There is no shortage of golden opportunities. Rachel Reeves, as shadow chancellor, should be limbering up to humiliate the government on its economic management. Interest rates and inflation are going up; taxation is at its highest levels since the Attlee government; there will be few news bulletins in the months ahead where the phrase “cost of living crisis” isn’t mentioned. Lisa Nandy, as shadow secretary of state for the government’s cherished levelling up agenda, could easily attack Michael Gove for what so far appears to be a bunch of “initiatives” that had already been announced and that include hardly any extra money.

Jess Phillips, as the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding, has an enormous opportunity in the wake of the appalling murder of Sarah Everard by a serving policeman  and a spate of other high-profile attacks on women, to make the case for stronger measures to be taken to protect them.

Ms Phillips is also an active member of Friends of Israel, and so is also doing her bit to rehabilitate her party in the eyes of the Jewish community after its appalling treatment during the Corbyn years. Another old adversary of Corbyn is Stella Creasy, the shadow business minister, who has a clear canvas on which to make the case that business has nothing to fear from a Labour government.

Yvette Cooper is a rare political animal within her party, in that she has cabinet experience as chief secretary to the Treasury under Gordon Brown. She is now the shadow home secretary, opposing a soft target in the shape of Priti Patel, and is widely spoken of as a potential front-runner in any future Labour leadership contest.

But the people’s choice, increasingly, appears to be Angela Rayner. Mocked in her early incarnation as a member of Corbyn’s shadow team for her Prescottian use of the English language, Ms Rayner has shown herself to be a formidable fighter, both against the Tories and within her own party.

A cack-handed attempt by Starmer to sack her last year ended up with her being landed with shadow cabinet offices as well as being deputy leader. Starmer seems to have judged her purely on her former association with Corbyn and wanted her out for that reason. He hadn’t grasped her popularity with parliamentary colleagues and with the party’s grass roots. She has a direct line to Labour’s core working-class constituency, especially in the north. Her back story is one most Labour women would kill for: leaving school pregnant and without a single qualification at the age of sixteen, then becoming a care worker and trade union official. She’s an unapologetic socialist and likes a punch-up: she called a Tory MP “scum” – a remark for which she apologised only after the murder of David Amess and her being attacked for using the sort of language that provokes violence against MPs.

But since then, she has acquired a new gravitas. It was widely felt that her take-no-prisoners approach would have finished Boris Johnson off at prime minister’s questions when the Partygate controversy erupted, had Keir Starmer not returned to the Commons after self-isolation for Covid. She is just 42, and some male Tory MPs are known to go weak at the knees when this flame-haired Mancunian starts turning angry. She could well be the one to break that glass ceiling, at which point their sense of certainty might give way altogether.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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