Labour's Women Problem?

By: Emily Hawkins

Just over two years ago David Cameron was defending criticisms from Labour that his party had a “woman problem.” Cathy Newman wrote at the time that the row of white men sitting on the Conservative front bench were “like sitting ducks” for leader Ed Miliband to call the party out on its apparent lack of commitment to helping women have a political platform. Fast forward to summer 2016 the Conservatives have overcome any “woman problem”, appointing the second female Prime Minister in British history and successfully solving institutional sexism through a merciful ban on pink buses from British streets. Well, not exactly.

But instead of an opposition working together to highlight the discrepancies between Tory rhetoric and policy regarding gender equality, the Labour party have spent the last few months languishing in a civil war that has, among other things, increasingly been defined with accusations of abuse and misogyny (from both sides of the leadership contest).

Accusations of abuse by his supporters have caused Jeremy Corbyn’s pitch of a softer, nicer politics to sour slightly. In one case, it was revealed that leadership challenger Angela Eagle endured misogynistic abuse from fellow Labour members; the words “Angie the dyke”  were reportedly used at one constituency AGM. Another headline saw 45 female Labour MPs write a letter to Corbyn begging him to take more action on the abuse enacted by members supporting the leader. The MPs pointed to recent incidents of “rape threats, death threats, smashed cars and bricks through the windows,” and stated they felt Corbyn had shown negligence in his duty to protect female Labour members. Some members agree, one young supporter told me how she felt let down after Corbyn’s vote against an NEC proposal to have a secret ballot, a vote suggested by two female members of the NEC concerned of online harassment.

The Labour Party is clearly divided, while a majority of female MPs have voiced concerns, be that in columns, tweets or the aforementioned letter, 67 per cent of women Labour supporters have declared themselves to be supportive of Corbyn to YouGov.

Lauren Razavi, a Labour Party member, Director of content and communications startup Flibl and freelance journalist, told me she felt that Corbyn and his team were “doing a huge amount of positive work to ensure the Labour Party is inclusive and fit for purpose,” by engaging in debate and hearing the concerns and comments of party members.

“As a young female journalist with left-wing views, I've been subject to a torrent of abuse online over the past year. The abuse women face for expressing political views is awful -- but it's hardly a Labour-only problem.”

On the other side of the leadership debate, challenger Owen Smith has been criticised for a series of rhetorical comments alluding to violence against women. In one speech Smith said he would like the party to “smash Theresa May back on her heels,” an addition to a previous analogy of domestic abuse he made in a blog about the relationship between the two governing parties of the 2010 coalition. There have been more incidents too. But it’s just banter, right? Female Labour members don’t seem to agree with this counter-argument, with one poll reporting only 33% support Smith.

Some members are uncomfortable with what appear to be lacklustre and unhelpful statements of abuse “not being in my name” by Corbyn; others disbelieve that Corbyn’s leadership has contributed to a more virulent atmosphere for women in the party, arguing his policy and rhetoric are far more understanding the concerns of women in the UK today than his political rivals.

Samantha, a young member says she thinks women are judged more harshly in the party, particularly when it comes to feminist politics. “People going after Harman and Eagle for not being feminist enough and writing their entire political careers off yet praising Corbyn for being a fantastic feminist when, in my view, he hasn't actually helped women that much does seem like there is very much a double standards issue,” she tells me.

“I do get the impression that it is worse on the far left, in terms of sheer violence, though I fully believe that all sides are sexist but I think there is an attitude running through the far left of "oh we can't be sexist not us" because they have a very economic reading of sexism. I've seen hard left men when accused of sexism just say that Corbyn is better for women so they can't be sexist.”

Athena, a Labour Students member, also tells me, “I think from the ownership of 'socialism', many in Labour have been felt they can hide their sexism or because the guise of an ideology feels so strong to them, they can be completely deluded about the level of sexism in the party or their own actions.”

“I think what's happened/happening is a transition into a smug, self righteous sexism under the guise of 'knowing what's best' and therefore = socialism. We still face the out of step, old fashioned white men but the sexist attitudes have morphed to fit the zeitgeist and has hidden under it.”

That misogyny is not an issue unique to the Labour party is true, most if not all main political parties have been accused of incidents of individual and institutional sexism in recent years. Regardless, Labour is at a risk of pretending their problems do not exist, and particularly after a summer of supporters attempting to sweep accusations under the rug so as to defend their particular candidate. There has been a lot of talk about how Labour needs to unite following what is likely to be Corbyn’s victory, but there needs to be a greater dialogue between the leadership and those who feel that the party is not welcoming to women - whatever side of the leadership debate they are on.
Labour's Women Problem? Labour's Women Problem? Reviewed by Student Voices on 19:41 Rating: 5

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