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.