Watching the very pleasant Liz Kendall on television this week, I was struck by how extraordinary it is that more than 40 years have now passed since the Conservatives selected a woman leader and still the Labour party cannot bring itself to do so. (Although, come to think of it, it took Labour 142 years to catch up with the Conservatives in selecting a Jew, so perhaps we have another century to wait.) I am not necessarily saying that Ms Kendall is the answer — she seems able, but inexperienced — but there does appear to be a serious barrier to women at the very top of the Labour party.
I suspect this is due less to old-fashioned misogyny than to the sexual politics which feature so largely in the ideology of the left. Margaret Thatcher benefited greatly from the fact that Tory MPs — the only electorate for her party’s leadership at that time — had never given the slightest thought to such questions. They had always assumed that a man would lead, but when a brave woman popped up, they were exasperated by Ted Heath and simply said, ‘Let’s give her a go.’ In the Labour party, it is so much more complicated. Who, for the party, is the right sort of woman? Should she be married or not, childless or not, heterosexual or not? Should she take a strong stand on lots of ‘women’s subjects’ — work/life balance, abortion, sexism, rape, quotas, child-care, FGM? Should she be in favour of the veil as the authentic expression of an anti-western oppressed minority, or against it because it oppresses her sex?
There is no answer to many of these questions which party members can agree on. So every woman candidate gets mired in controversy on such points, or, like Yvette Cooper, avoids them only by blandness and seeming insincerity. It is extremely hard for a woman potential Labour leader to find her voice without deeply annoying significant numbers of her brothers and sisters (especially her sisters) in the movement. The woman who drones on about women’s issues has an honoured place in the modern Labour party — look at Harriet Harman — but by doing so enters a ghetto which prevents her from becoming No. 1. Yet Mrs Thatcher’s brilliant perception that the best way for women to win the sex war was to shut up about it and get to the top is not open to Labour hopefuls in the 21st century.
There is also the question of looks. A hidden reason for Mrs Thatcher’s victory in 1975 was that lots of older Tory backbenchers fancied her. She was 49 and made the best of it without obvious strain. She was not disturbingly sexy, and she behaved with absolute propriety throughout, thus preventing any filthy old wretch from taking liberties, but she appealed to the chivalrous instincts of the knights of the shires. If today’s Labour selectorate knows the meaning of the word chivalry at all, it is only to denounce it. On the other hand, there is an understanding that no leader — especially, despite the age of equality, a woman — can look grotesque on television and win a general election.
So what are the right looks? Possibly Ms Cooper has them — there is something quite appealing about her slightly French crop and black and white dresses, especially when she is being so boring that one looks rather than listens. But she is so contrived and cautious that there is no touch of appealing vulnerability. Ms Kendall looks like a nice person, but not in a distinctive way. I sense that the right woman leader to win a general election for Labour today would conform to one of two physical types. She would either be a more lower-middle-class version of Clare Balding — reassuring, competent, well-rounded, possibly lesbian — or more provocative and sassy, like the wonderful one with a strong northern accent whose name I have forgotten who talks about money and business on BBC Breakfast. Her feminism would be of the ‘Show, don’t tell’ variety. The public would like that, but of course Labour party members, who make the selection, wouldn’t. They are still so 20th-century that they prefer a man with a dull beard.
If the man with the dull beard does win, where will Labour stand in the European Union referendum? Jeremy Corbyn, being a hard leftist, is theoretically against the EU, but eurosceptic Labour friends tell me that he is not to be relied on when the going gets tough. I expect he will adopt the conventional ‘anti-austerity’ position, which is to assail the European elites while not doing anything which might risk the loss of the subsidies they provide and the regulations they pour forth. If so, that will, on balance, be good for the ‘get out’ side. A Corbyn-led campaign for a No vote would drive lots of Tory waverers right back to David Cameron.
At the funeral last week of my much-loved godfather, Professor Evelyn Ebsworth, I met staff of The Leys, the Cambridge public school of whose governing trust Evelyn was chairman. The funeral was shortly before the 70th anniversary of VJ Day. I was interested to learn that, early in the 20th century, The Leys established close links with Japan. Several Leysians were members of the imperial cabinet which took Japan to war, and in the 1930s, the school magazine was alive with letters from some of them defending their nationalist polices, countered by others, from Old Leysian missionaries to China, complaining about Japanese atrocities. Unfortunately, this exchange of views between old chums did not calm things down. Mr Chips, created by the Old Leysian James Hilton, is supposed to be based on W.H. Balgarnie, a master at the school from 1900 to 1932, yet Pearl Harbor happened all the same. The incidence of British-educated leaders running other countries would make an interesting study. (By the way, the present kings of Bahrain and Tonga both went to The Leys.) Did it/does it help them? Did it/does it help us?
A paradox of nowadays: the fact that this year’s A-level results are worse is strong evidence that educational standards are at last getting better.