No one cares if the next Labour leader is a woman

Suddenly, lots of pro-Labour feminists have gone off the idea of electing a woman for women’s sake.

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan


Labour has a woman problem – or so countless Labour supporters, members and critics have said for years. While the Tories can boast of putting its two female leaders into Downing Street, the Labour Party has still never elected a woman as leader.

Barbara Castle was the first woman to try for Labour deputy leader in 1961; it was another 15 years before Shirley Williams became the second failed attempt. Gwyneth Dunwoody was also shunned in 1983, with less than two per cent of the vote. Margaret Beckett became the first female deputy nine years later (holding on to that role for two years and failing to win the top job in 1994).

It wasn’t until the 2000s that things picked up for Labour women. Diane Abbott ran for leader in 2010, followed by Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall in 2015. In 2020, at the start of a new decade, Labour has an unprecedented three female MPs still battling it out for leadership: Emily Thornberry, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy (Jess Phillips received enough endorsements from MPs but withdrew last week).

But believe it or not, even with so many female candidates on the roster, it’s still not certain that a woman will win. Keir Starmer, the Remoaners’ choice and lone bloke in the race, has been consistently topping the polls, with continuity candidate Long-Bailey close behind.

After years of banging on about the importance of women in political positions – to inspire us girls to aim high – commentary about Labour’s so-called woman problem has shifted. In a rather awkward interview on Woman’s Hour, Jane Garvey failed to hide her disappointment that both her guests, recently ousted Labour MP Jenny Chapman and shadow justice minister Yasmin Qureshi, were backing Starmer. Chapman defended her stance by arguing: ‘We want to support women getting into prominent positions, and we understand the importance and significance of female role models in public life, particularly in politics. But we also understand that that on its own doesn’t change the lives of the women that I used to represent.’

That qualifying ‘but’ is crucial – and it seems to keep coming up when Labour politicians are quizzed on the gender of their future leader. When asked, on Good Morning Britain, whether or not Labour should elect a woman, Emily Thornberry said: ‘I think you should go for the best candidate.’ In a separate interview on the programme, Lisa Nandy said, ‘I would dearly like to see us have a woman leader… but this contest has got to be about upping our game… and all of the candidates have something to offer’.

Long-Bailey’s supporters at Novara Media say Labour needs a ‘female leader in Rebecca Long-Bailey’. Corbyn’s mate Maxine Peake also backs Long-Bailey, telling BBC Breakfast that Labour needs a ‘woman from the regions’. Despite this, Long-Bailey’s election pledge makes no mention of the W-word. It seems that hardly anyone wants to stand up for the feminist idea of promoting women anymore. Even the Guardian ran an article reminding readers that ‘being a woman in itself isn’t enough to lead Labour’.

They’re right, of course. The leadership should not be chosen on the basis of gender. But this is all a bit rich. Labour politicians, supporters and sympathetic commentators have been bleating about the boy’s club of Westminster for years. The Party’s NEC statement on all-women shortlists declares that it is ‘committed to upholding the principle of affirmative action for women’. The 50:50 Parliament campaign group for equal representation proudly boasted last year that Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have ‘fully embraced our call for action’.

Many Labour supporters are celebrating the fact that Labour now has more female MPs than men sitting in parliament (albeit many, many fewer MPs in total than before the election). How can a party that has whole-heartedly championed the feminist demand of prioritising women for women’s sake in policy and in practice now renege on those beliefs?

The reason is that when politics with a big P – or a big B – comes along, the petty nonsense of identity politics usually falls by the wayside.

With its numbers diminished, and its current leader a laughing stock, the row over Brexit and the Labour Party’s inability to chime with working-class voters has focused the minds of many of its members. It’s all well and good to wax lyrical about quotas, policies and poking the finger at Boris Johnson’s ‘woman problem’ when there’s not much at stake. But when faced with the possibility of political annihilation, Labour has realised it has bigger problems.

What’s more, as all the female candidates have demonstrated, no woman (or man) likes to think that they became successful for any reason other than their own merit – this is why they’re all unwilling to say anything as gauche as ‘elect me, Emily Thornberry, the ladies’ choice’.

The question is, if voters don’t care about the gender of the candidate, and the candidates don’t care about it either, why do we still keep talking about the ‘woman question’? What matters in any election is whether the candidate can be trusted to live up to the promises they make. If Labour wants to court the votes of women, it might consider that something like 49 per cent of us voted Leave, vast numbers of us want to reform abortion law, and almost all of us want better childcare provision as well as more houses, better education and higher-paid jobs.

It’s time for politicians to drop the feminist nonsense and to start treating women as individual, political agents.

Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist and the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Hugo van der Meer

1st February 2020 at 1:10 pm

The best man for the job is a man…but…where are they?


30th January 2020 at 1:27 pm

No one cares.

jessica christon

30th January 2020 at 12:47 pm

Jenny Chapman: ‘We want to support women getting into prominent positions… But… that on its own doesn’t change the lives of the women that I used to represent.’

But yet the political establishment remains completely obsessed with an issue that not many people, including women care about. The disconnect between them and the public is staggering, quite frankly.

Michael Lynch

30th January 2020 at 12:58 am

It’s yet more evidence of the Left’s hypocrisy. They’re great talkers but not doers and that’s why the British people see through them most of the time. They just don’t do credibility that lot.

Matt Ryan

29th January 2020 at 10:37 pm

Couldn’t Sir Keir (spit) just self identify as a woman to solve the problem?

Michael Lynch

30th January 2020 at 12:45 am

I think he does at the weekends!

steve moxon

30th January 2020 at 8:44 am

Keira IS a girl, or so he comes across to ordinary folk; at least gay!
That namby-panby metrosexual voice won’t cut it in the ‘red wall’!


30th January 2020 at 11:43 pm

The Tories didn’t break through anything in the North. They won a few constituencies because of Brexit and because Corbyn is/was so appalling. There is very little love still for the Tories across the North, even in those constituencies that voted for them in December. Any half-decent Labour candidate would have wiped the floor with a floppy-haired toff charlatan like de Pfeffel.

Jim Lawrie

29th January 2020 at 9:23 pm

Labour’s sex problem is the low calibre candidates selected for all women shortlists through political patronage and connections. Handed down from on high. These three are in situ due to their sex. A leadership test has exposed them as a trio of airheads. Keir Starmer need only sit back, watch and keep quiet.
A self serving Party run by and for careerists will not recruit footsoldiers. Just wannabe armchair generals.

a watson

30th January 2020 at 9:12 am

Well put. The blander and more incompetent you are the more you will rise in the Labour party. Of course if you are female and dark skinned all the better – as long as you are not working class, and a male with a local accent.

steve moxon

29th January 2020 at 9:01 pm

Don’t politicians ever look at research? The most robust finding in all psychology of work is that women HATE to have a woman boss. This is because female sociality is rooted in preparing for mutual reliable childcare, so is all about making close bonds with very few others, and excluding all others. Being under a female manager is usually hell, in that she will consider few if any of her underlings as not being in her ‘in-group’. Whereas a woman’s individual little network is the full extent of her group identification, men readily, automatically see as their in-group any symbolic grouping into which they are placed: eg, a workplace (in its entirety), their university, etc.]
Consequently even women see no virtue — indeed, quite the opposite — in voting for a female as their representative.
Political parties should take heed when it comes to selecting candidates!
Liebore won’t deviate from its hokey wokey insanity, of course, so we can sit back and smile at the stack of things they do to remain unelectable.

Steve Roberts

29th January 2020 at 6:30 pm

Once again Whelan raises an important point that few do, and in doing so exposes how unprincipled, narcissistic shallow careerists these labourite women are.
Just as the CUP were facing electoral annhilation after the Euro election, dropped everything , all principles, all dislike of the maverick old Etonian Johnson and – with the huge assistance of Farage – got a thumping majority and power again, these women in the LP are doing the same.
They are not interested in serving, these are careerists, self serving ones, their justification of being in politics is themselves , a narcissitic paternalism of the “poor”, us sad creatures that needs them.
But for them to sustain their interest they need to ideally be in power or been a serious alternative, worthy of attention , with at least a chance of gaining power and prestige.
Whelan is correct, there is the chance – a little overegged i think at the moment – that the LP will become a passing moment in history, electorally anhililated,not able to get anywhere near political power again for the time left for these careerists, off they may go to other pastures new, as they all do, but they want one last shot. They are so myopic they can’t the wood for the trees, they really think they can win next time, so most of their “principles” but not all,are ditchable, in pursuit of the self.

steven brook

29th January 2020 at 6:22 pm

“it might consider that something like 49 per cent of us voted Leave, vast numbers of us want to reform abortion law” absolutely right! given medical advances it’s about time we further restricted abortion. It should be seen as a last-ditch highly undesirable option and It’s not a method of contraception under any circumstances. “If you can kill this mothafucka I can at least abandon him” Dave Chappelle’s Abortion Stance

Asif Qadir

29th January 2020 at 4:58 pm

Smella Kneelin’

(Kneeling in obeisance, elbows deep in the Furedi woman.)

Being ” a woman” shouldn’t be seen as a “political stance”. No wonder you fit in so well with the fey squad.

Ven Oods

30th January 2020 at 8:39 am

Would that count as an ‘ad feminem’ attack?

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