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Wanted: More women

August 23, 2010 at 9:59 am / by

The whole point of the Labour party is greater equality, so for women MPs the benchmark should not be other, lagging, parties, but ourselves.

A great man once said that this was no time for a novice. Well some not-so-great women are now telling you that this is no time for a sycophant. Comrades – please stop patting yourselves on the back about how great Labour were when it came to putting women in positions of power and how the Terrible Tories are oh-so-backward.

We really aren’t that great. Yes we are better than the other parties but we haven’t done enough. Truth is that we love the Labour Party. We both sleep breathe and eat Labour values. That doesn’t automatically mean we’re blindly partisan. It means we want the Party to be a pioneer when it comes to women. And our record on women is, at best mediocre, at worst inadequate.

Yes we had more women in the cabinet than the ConDems do. Well of course we would. We’re the Labour Party. Not the Conservatives who actually had a manifesto pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act. Not the Lib Dems who have climbed into bed with the Terrible Tories.

We are in a league of our own and, frankly speaking, it’s our duty to champion the way forward for equality. We don’t need to compare ourselves to other parties, we need to have our own goals in sight. Especially as we are now the sole progressive force in British politics.

Until Diane Abbott threw her hat in for the leadership contest, we, along with other young Labour women, were despairing. There’s no guarantee that we’re voting for Diane but at least she changes the terms of the debate. At least our candidates can no longer form a boyband. But her nomination battle was hardly ideal. At the eleventh hour Harriet Harman and others rallied together to salvage her bid. And a male contender had to drop out to make way for her – not the most auspicious start to her campaign.

You can be sure that we’ll be scrutinising our leadership candidates for their policies on women. Ed Miliband’s tweet on the proposal of 50% of the Shadow Cabinet being women is positive “Good debate. Believe it is right. Will see what Labour MPs decide” but there are many more demands that will need to be met as demonstrated by this website.

Of course there is another important race in which a female, BAME candidate will play a key role. Again we haven’t decided who we are supporting but Oona King’s bid to become queen of the capital is extremely welcoming. Finally a leading female voice in a key battleground – but still not enough.

It’s important to note that there were two female candidates in Labour’s last deputy leadership contest but only one woman running for leader in this contest. We have a large number of female local councillors but only 81 women MPs that constitute just 31% of the new Parliamentary Labour Party. That’s something we can be moderately proud of but not something to write home about, especially considering that the total number of Labour women MPs actually fell in this election. Only six Labour women MPs (and eight women MPs in all), stood to be Chair of a select committee compared with 40 men. This is a missed opportunity for women to lead Parliament in holding the male-dominated executive to account.

So why do so few women strive to lead? Is the Labour Party to blame? Or is our political culture just not conducive to a female leader? Has it become the unspoken rule that women can be second in command but never quite hold the reigns of power?

Why are Labour women reluctant to put themselves forward for the ‘big’ positions? Is it a lack of self-confidence or ambition? Or is it because they do not believe the party will accept a woman as leader? Perhaps they simply cannot bear going through the emotional washing machine that is the British media’s punishment for women in power. Think of the column inches devoted to Jacqui Smith’s cleavage, not to mention the countless zoomed-in photos of our first female Home Secretary. We can only hope that Theresa May’s policies will receive as much scrutiny as her shoes.

But it’s not all bad news for women in politics. We rejoiced after our first three Muslim women got elected to Parliament this year. Ok good work but seriously? It’s 2010. Shouldn’t we really have achieved this milestone a while back? We had our first Muslim man in Parliament back in 1997 when Mohammad Sarwar won Glasgow Central. Why did it take us 13 years longer to elect a Muslim woman?

Perhaps this shows that we need to reassess our policies on women and that we can no longer ignore the concept of intersectionality. It is not enough to tackle discrimination solely against women, or BAME candidates. We need to think about discrimination against candidates who may be both.

Therefore, central to tackling discrimination against women in politics is an understanding that our women activists do not experience discrimination purely because of their gender. The barriers against them may stem from a variety of factors including their ethnicity, disability, their perceived ‘class’ status and sexual orientation. Rather than operating independently, these strands of discrimination accumulate. So we need to consider whether Diane would have had an easier ride if she was not from a BAME background or whether it would have been impossible to get her on the ballot paper were she disabled.

Our point is that if the benchmark is the Tories, then yes we can reign in triumph over our outstanding record on women. But if our benchmark is true equality, we still have a long way to go.

By Tulip Siddiq and Debbie Moss

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This article was originally published on the Labourlist.org website.

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