Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The missing 30

Labour was founded, not to bring about socialism – that came later with the 1918 Fabian-authored Clause IV, but to put working-class people into parliament. Initially groups like the National Union of Miners stayed with the Liberal party, hoping for scraps off the table. Soon it was clear that only Labour was committed to this first fundamental aim; the NUM and the working-class voters in the new franchise switched accordingly.

Labour led the way for women’s representation. Not the first women member of parliament, but the first in the cabinet and soon by far the largest group of women MPs in the House of Commons. The party stands on the shoulders of giants who entered Westminster in tougher times. Harriet Harman joined parliament in 1982 and was quickly derided for raising issues then deemed non-political, such a childcare. In 1997 a huge breakthrough took place and over the 13 years that followed most big offices of state was headed by a woman at some point. We had the first black woman in the cabinet and appointed Britain’s first woman European commissioner; Valerie Amos now heads up a United Nations agency and Cathy Ashton last year completed her term as first vice-president of the European Union. That government transformed women’s lives and these women transformed the policy environment we now live in. When Labour wins, women win.

Research by Progress shows that, had Labour won all its target seats in England and Wales in May this year, the party’s ranks would have been boosted by an additional 35 women. If it had not lost any seats to the Tories, it would have been 39. The House of Commons, with an overall net gain of 30 women, would now boast over a third, 34 per cent, of its membership as female. Instead women make up just 29 per cent of the famous green benches. This would have transformed our international standing. Currently the Commons is 38th in the league table. Under Labour it would have been 26th, joint with Serbia and one place below Uganda. This would have seen the United Kingdom leapfrog three European Union member states – Portugal, Italy and Austria – and seen us ahead of New Zealand – which remains one of the few countries to elect a woman Labour prime minister.

Had Labour triumphed in these 79 seats – and the candidates not been let down by their party leadership – 2015 would have amounted to another step-change in the character of parliament. Secretary of state for education Nicky Morgan was one of only six Conservative women where the Labour candidate – with all the resources of a target seat – was male. Labour’s Polly Billington was in all-female head-to-head fight. Had we won Hastings, Labour could have replaced Amber Rudd without parliament losing women’s representation. There were seven such fights among Labour’s English and Welsh targets, including in Brighton Pavilion which the Green party’s only MP represents.

While Labour is busy debating a false choice of ‘principle vs power’, it is women that will lose out most. The tax credit cuts, the wider benefit changes, the challenges around caring for older people, the hiking of childcare charges. They hurt us all but they hurt women disproportionately. Emboldened by the surprise outright majority the Tory right will be on the lookout for an opportunity, like they did with the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act and the Serious Crime Act 2015, to push free votes on abortion and the like. In moments like these we will not just wish that Labour has won a majority, but realise we miss those 30 women.


Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets @RichardAngell

The full paper is here. To see the full breakdown of results in Labour’s target seats in England and Wales, see here


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Richard Angell

is director of Progress


  • Perhaps if the party had candidates with ability rather than some to simply accommodate a gender they may have won the seats…

  • Would Labour have had as many high profile BAME members of parliament or had representation from people who had actually had ‘real’ jobs before becoming MPs. Or would we have had more, head in the clouds politicos who had only ever worked for think tanks, been special advisers etc.

  • “Had Labour triumphed in these 79 seats – and the candidates not been let down by their party leadership – 2015 would have …. ”

    There’s something both wrong and dangerous in the “let down by” argument.

    Wrong in that the weakness of the Party in 2015 and 2010 was actually endorsed by the Party’s passive acceptance – in which we are all complicit – of minimum-risk steady-as-she-goes politics in which no bold initiatives were taken, no striking out from the middle ground in case it frightened the horses.

    Dangerous in that the “let down by” argument is a blame game and leads inexorably to turning to a pied piper who plays a better tune, a more seductive please all line.

    This article by Richard Angell is therefore odd not in that I don’t agree with the analysis, nothing unusual there though as it happens I agree with much of it, but that it moves away from the customary embracing of the centre ground position and moves towards the look-for-a-saviour position. Given that both Progress and presumably he too embrace Liz Kendall as the saviour of the moment, perhaps that’s no surprise. But she has no true differentiating solutions, only Tory-lite arguments; the consequence of which would be to reinforce the case of those on the doorstep who express no wish to vote on the basis that “they’re all the same”. An example of Tory-lite arguments is welcoming free schools even though they are financed – more generously, by as much as one-third per pupil, than others – by top-slicing the budgets of the remaining state schools of this country.

    Increasing the sheer number and proportion of MPs who are women will, contrary to other comments, inevitably alter the politics of the Commons. Even allowing for how some women in order to survive in a male-dominated shouty environment will adapt to the same, I am sure a higher proportion of women MPs would change the tone, style and content of what the Commons does. But “what if” politics is a bit pointless.

    What if the voting system in 2015 hadn’t been changed, what if David Miliband had won in 2010, what if Gordon Brown had succeeded sooner or gone to the country sooner or indeed not been given an unopposed shoo-in to No. 10, what if a different succesor to John Smith had been picked or if John Smith hadn’t collapsed and died when he did, what if we had scraped a win in 1992, what if the Falklands War hadn’t happened, what if there hadn’t been industrisl disputes in the winter of 1978-79 shortly before the 1979 General election, what if Barbara Castle had led the Party rather than Jim Callaghan, what if Jim Callaghan had beaten Harold Wilson to succeed Gaitskell in 1963, what if Hugh Gaitskell had lived long enough to lead the Party into the 1964 election, what if Clem Attlee had retired sooner to give Gaitskell a better chance of becoming a known quantity etc. Ruing the past and playing might-have-been gets you nowhere.

    We have a choice between more of the same or taking a different direction. Liz Kendall, whilst seeming different, actually could steer us even close to the Tories than Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham might – and I doubt they would. Despite what the polls say, I sense that the members may not actually – when they cast their votes – do what they have allegedly been telling pollsters. So once again Peter Kellner may have some explaining to do on 12 September, and we can sleep peacefully thinking we’re in safe hands.

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