Cerys Howell

Will Labour ever have a female leader?

Will Labour ever have a female leader?
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Where are all the women in Labour's leadership race? Jess Phillips pulled out of the contest in January. Emily Thornberry, who ploughed on in spite of having less overall support, was knocked out a fortnight ago. Two women candidates remain. But every indication, from this week’s polling to CLP nominations to betting odds, is that Keir Starmer will beat Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy to a resounding victory on 4 April. With ballots going out this week and 70 per cent of members likely to vote within the first three days, the election is all but over.

How did it happen that Labour, once again, will not elect a woman as its leader? In spite of a Tory Government pushing ahead with a Brexit that many people don't support and demonstrating an urge to tinker with the foundations of the British state, policy has been strangely irrelevant in Labour's leadership election.

Starmer has adopted the Theresa May strategy in playing it safe and being as non-committal as you could hope to get away with as the frontrunner courting a policy-aware electorate. That it has hardly harmed his pitch is not surprising. After voting twice for a leader whose principles they liked but whose leadership delivered the worst election result since 1935, the membership is looking for a candidate who can demonstrate, above all, competence.

This is wise, given the circumstances. It is a shame then that not a single female candidate has showcased what is required. Phillips ran a fundamentally flawed campaign, mistaking her refreshingly straight-talking personality for an effective challenge to what will, by 2024, be 14 years of Tory rule. She could not stretch her support beyond a hard core of moderates. Thornberry, in spite of a solid enough tenure as shadow foreign secretary, bizarrely took on the role of a rabble-rousing “street-fighter” shouting erratically at hustings and pointing out her credentials as a campaigner rather than building on a persona that many members had previously considered statesmanlike.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Unite-endorsed continuity Corbyn candidate, was doomed from the start by her ties to electoral failure and factionalism. Her backers were misguided to assume she would repeat the success of Corbyn in 2015 and 2016 based on policy. As it turned out, only the hard left of the party (the 26 per cent or so Long-Bailey has stalled on) were willing to stay wedded to a platform that delivered electoral catastrophe. Combined with a lack of charisma or competence, her ill-judged 10/10 rating of Corbyn’s leadership set the tone for her to finish second, if she’s lucky.

Lisa Nandy was the closest of all the women in the race to meeting the mark. A relative unknown at the beginning, she proved herself to be a tough media performer with a simple, initially engaging policy narrative (“towns”) and effortless authenticity. But incoherent zig-zagging on policy (claiming to understand lost Labour heartlands while doggedly supporting free movement, then u-turning on the latter) meant that Nandy has failed to mark herself out as a future prime minister.

Single-mindedness was never going to be rewarded in this race. After four years of factional self-indulgence for which Labour paid a devastating price in December, most Labour members understand electability means the breadth of narrative that has been tentatively offered by Starmer alone.

The failure of the women candidates in the race to demonstrate this range that Labour is desperately lacking was thrown into light by the ongoing saga of the transgender pledges. While Nandy, Long-Bailey and eventually Thornberry jumped at the chance to show support (Nandy and Long-Bailey choosing to double down on their endorsement with outrageous commitments), Starmer quietly declined to sign this thinly-veiled attack on the women campaigning to protect the provision of single-sex spaces.

A reckoning between the 2010 Equality Act and 2005 Gender Recognition Act has been a long time coming. The conflict now raging embodies some of the most fragile concerns of both women’s groups and the transgender community: identity, safety, privacy, dignity, respect.

Starmer, in keeping with his well-pitched performance throughout, implicitly understood name-calling is not the way to resolve a complicated clash of rights. This allowed him to set himself apart once again as the candidate representing not placard-waving factionalism but a democratic model of leadership. Ironically this debate about what it means to be a woman laid bare the fatal flaw lurking within each of the female leadership candidates' performances.

From crowd-pleasing to flip-flopping to outright viciousness, the female candidates in Labour’s leadership race haven’t covered themselves in glory. Of course, it’s true female politicians are often subject to double standards and scrutinised in ways male politicians aren’t. On the issue of gender, this is a trap that is hard to avoid: if they had rejected the pledges, the women would likely have been condemned more virulently than Starmer for lacking compassion. To stand against this criticism requires exceptional self-belief. Certainly Starmer’s long and ruthless preparation for his bid was not lacking in self-assurance. Either way, Labour's female leadership contenders didn’t cut it this time. In the end, none seemed fit to take on the task of beating Boris Johnson in 2024. For that, Labour will have to, yet again, put their trust in a man.