Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Power behind the throne

Six years out of power and Labour party members are – rightly – still damn proud of its record on women. Passing the Equality Act on Labour’s last day in office is something that inspires talk of the first act of a future Labour government. The achievements are a testament to all the Labour women who fought for every breakthrough which the Conservatives denounced as ‘political correctness gone mad’. And the Tories still do not get it. David Cameron has just appointed another chap to lead the government’s review into getting more women on boards with a nice lady deputy.

However, in this guest-edited issue of Progress marking International Women’s Day, Emma Burnell points out that just because other parties are appalling on this front Labour cannot be content with being just bad. Gender equality has never been close to being ‘sorted’ within Labour. The party is now in danger of slipping back, both in terms of what real power within the party looks like – the treatment of women leaves much to be desired – and, crucially, how it can show women in the country that they can trust the party again.

It is apparent to everyone that Labour has an all-male top team and an all-male mayoral slate. That was not the fault of any of the candidates. But it is an embarrassment that – by choice – all the top shadow cabinet jobs are held by men. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has broken some new ground – it has appointed not just its first but also the second female shadow secretary of state for defence. Furthermore, the leadership is to be congratulated that it has built on Ed Miliband’s legacy of record numbers of women in the shadow cabinet and that there now is gender balance. However, the uncomfortable truth is that, although these posts are important and there are exceptionally talented women occupying them, they would not transfer over to being full cabinet positions in government. Defenders of the leadership’s choice say they believe that, ‘all these jobs are equally important’. If true, no one would mind if one of those very talented women were to job-swap with the shadow chancellor midterm. He or she who holds the purse strings …

In her interview with Progress this month, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale talks about why having women in leadership positions does matter. She is right. Just look at how Hillary Clinton is reshaping American politics. Women do not soften the ferocity of the political debate, but they escalate different issues up the policy and spending agenda, namely education, childcare and opportunity. That is why Dugdale agrees with a party rule change to make sure that we can never have an all-male leadership team again.

There has been much soul-searching about why the optic of the five men on stage was allowed to happen on the day the leadership results were announced. Harriet Harman and her team simply did not feel comfortable about women being wheeled on stage to provide some superficial feminisation for the photos.

The front of house matters, but the power behind the throne is almost as important. Senior staff behind the scenes often wield more influence than all but a handful of frontbenchers. They make critical decisions about the party’s direction, strategy, message, policy, and they speak to the press. All the top jobs in the Labour party are currently held by men and according to Fabian Society research only 11 per cent of senior staff positions are held by women. The breakdown of black, Asian and minority ethnic employees is not known but it would not be surprising if the situation was further cause for concern.

Reflecting modern Britain in all that the Labour party does should be a core, not a separate, part of its renewal. To do politics differently, here are three ideas the leadership should explore.

First, stop appointing friends, or friends of friends, to be advisers and researchers. Advertise all jobs – especially those top ones.

Second, make available senior jobs on a part-time or job-share basis so more women with children can have more senior roles. The Guardian recently broke new ground by appointing two women to job-share the role of political editor – let’s take a leaf right out of its book.Equally, recruit some people from BAME backgrounds in party headquarters and as advisers, and not only to do ‘community engagement’. And move away from job segregation: strategy and legislation should not just be for the boys, and sandwiches and logistics should not just be for the girls.

Third, just as the party should be proud of the fact that it will now not tolerate all-male panels at conferences, there should be the same approach to all-male meetings – internal and external. Some will roll their eyes at this suggestion, but avoiding groupthink on a structural level is so fundamental to the change Labour needs.

As a case in point, take the issue of older women. This group goes almost entirely missing in internal discussions about policy. Despite the fact that they decide election outcomes, politics fails to deliver what they want.

The situation in which Labour women and the wider party find themselves has not come about under the current leadership – it is a symptom of long-standing culture. But it has not changed for the better; in fact, it has got worse. And women in the party are worried.

Guest-editor Ayesha Hazarika
Guest-editor | Ayesha Hazarika

The new politics must mean that we do things differently, and that means sharing power at the top of the party beyond a small pool of white men from similar backgrounds. Not only is that the progressive thing to do, it will help Labour better connect with modern Britain – and is central to the party’s prospects of ever winning again.

Progress is a process, not a one-off event. While this all-female edition has taken a refreshing approach to Labour’s debate, the magazine and organisation must continue the journey and not slip back when the reins are returned.

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The collection of Progress magazine's monthly editorials

Ayesha Hazarika

is a broadcaster and former adviser to Ed Miliband and Harriet Harman


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  • Such a pity Ayesha Hazarika is prepared to take Murdoch’s twelve pieces of silver to sit with Sun journalists week after week and attack the leadership of her own party.

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