Why can’t Labour get behind a woman leader?

Speculation has been rife since the beginning of the “beergate” about who would take Keir Starmer’s place as leader of the Labour Party should he be forced to resign. As the hot takes and bookies’ odds continue to churn, let’s name the giant elephant in the room. The Conservatives have done it twice. The Liberal Democrats have done it. The Greens have done it. The SNP, Sinn Fein and the DUP have done it. But Labour is the only major party in the UK not to have chosen a woman as leader — and it’s high time it asked itself why.  

This is the UK’s party of the left, the party that pioneered Sure Start and all-woman shortlists for parliamentary candidates. The party which, when it came to power in 1997, had five women in the cabinet compared with precisely zero when John Major came to power in 1990. Does this party — the party that says it is committed to equality — have a woman problem?

The problem clearly isn’t the calibre of its female politicians. There were plenty of excellent non-male contenders in the leadership races that elected Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn. In both cases, however, party members opted for the most obvious signifiers of authority in our society: being a man and, in Starmer’s case at least, wearing a grey suit. Even now, talk about Starmer’s replacement often includes Wes Streeting and Andy Burnham before Lisa Nandy.

Of course, Labour is not alone in battling the demons of its misogyny. The Reykjavik Index, which gauges attitudes to female leaders in G7 countries, found widespread distrust in women at the top. Even in Germany, where Angela “safe pair of hands” Merkel spent 16 years in power (and went to the effort of only ever wearing a suit), only 41 percent of respondents said that they were very comfortable with a woman as head of government.

When Starmer ran for leader in 2020 he won 56.2 per cent of the vote, compared to 27.6 per cent for Rebecca Long Bailey and 16.2 per cent for Lisa Nandy. Nandy and Long Bailey were far more charismatic but it was Starmer who seemed like the safe pair of hands. In 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn won 59.5 per cent of the vote, Andy Burnham came second ahead of Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall. It would appear that even Labour’s wild card seemed like more of a leader to the party rank and file. Compare that with the Conservative leadership vote in 2016, when Theresa May seemed like the safest bet.

And this preference for men calling the shots is a problem for the party in the regions, too. Eight out of ten metro mayors are from Labour. How many are women? Just one: Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire.  

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The party is more comfortable, perhaps, with women having slightly diminished power, as in the deputy leader position. In 2020 Angela Rayner won in the second round of voting, with Rosena Allin-Khan coming second, ahead of the male candidates. But Labour can, and should, do better than deputy leadership for women. The bookies’ favourite to be next Labour leader is Burnham, followed by Nandy. If Starmer does resign, perhaps this time Labour can man up and let a woman take charge.

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