Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Why we still need feminism

Other parties being appalling does not give Labour the right to be merely bad, argues Emma Burnell

I am often told the Labour party does not need feminism any more. That I am complaining over nothing about women’s representation and role in our party. Or worse – that for selfish reasons I am trying to prolong an old and long-won battle. When I am told these things I close my eyes and remember the most significant day in Labour’s recent history.

The most important people in Labour were all on stage that day last September as we gathered to hear who had been elected to lead us. The chair of the National Executive Committee, the general secretary of the party and the newly selected candidate for London mayor, leader and deputy leader. They were all men. In the audience and not on the platform were leader of the Scottish Labour party Kezia Dugdale and outgoing acting leader Harriet Harman.

These were very poor optics.

The Labour party has had just one permanent female general secretary, who left in 2001. Currently, not a single one of the 15 affiliated unions is run by a woman and neither is UnionsTogether, formerly the Trade Union and Labour party Liaison Organisation. The Fabian Society, the only thinktank officially affiliated to Labour, has had only two women in charge, the last of whom left in 1982 (though Glenys Thornton was acting general secretary in 1993-94). The LabourList website has never had a woman editor. Only 17 per cent of Labour council leaders are women. While with Ayesha Hazarika at the helm of this edition of Progress the magazine has now had five women edit it, the organisation itself has never had a female permanent director.

It matters that women are missing at the most important moments in our history and it matters that they are missing from the organisations that help to create that history. So when I am told that feminism in the Labour party is an old battle that has been fought and won, you will forgive me if I answer with a wry and weary sigh.

The scary part is that Labour is and has been miles ahead when it comes to women’s representation. In parliament, 43 per cent of our members of parliament are women, higher than all other parties (with the exception of the Green party which only has one MP). We have a fully gender-balanced cabinet (though we have still never had a female chancellor or shadow chancellor). That this can be true while the above also holds true shows that, while we lead the way, we simply cannot be complacent about what that means. Other parties being appalling does not give us the right to be merely bad.

Where Labour has achieved forward strides it has done so not simply because of our belief in equality, but because of our willingness to take hard choices to achieve it. Our commitment to all-women shortlists is precisely what has allowed us to achieve a more balanced parliament and we must continue not simply to argue for equality but to adopt these measures that enforce it.

This hard lifting has changed the face of the party, but all too often the culture drags behind – all too often, feminism is seen as the next priority. The one we will get to after socialism, rather than an essential component of making socialism and social democracy work. Feminism is not an add-on to class politics. It is not a ‘nice to have’. It is essential to making our party work not just for women but for men too.

Sometimes it has been argued that AWS locks out those from other under-represented groups. While these groups remain significantly disadvantaged, and much more must be done to ensure better representation that reflects our diverse nation and party, this is a classic divide-and-rule argument. Some members of our community and party face multiple discriminations. It is true. And those who argue in favour of AWS (and those who benefit from it) must be ever-vigilant that they are doing all they can to bring women of true diversity through the party. But ultimately this needs to be done not by allowing a choice of discriminations – pitting groups against each other – but by ending them all. Representation of BME candidates is not undermined by AWS nor are disabled candidates less likely to get on a ballot where women only are being selected. Indeed, recently Labour BME women have entered the House of Commons in greater numbers than BME men: in 2010 two BME Labour men were newly elected as against six BME women, and the same figures were repeated in 2015.

But it is not just in representation that our party needs an overhaul. We need female figureheads, but we also need to ensure the party is a safe space where women can be free to campaign and debate equally and free of harassment.

Several years too late (and after even the Liberal Democrats have put their house in order – at least on paper) Labour has now adopted a formal policy and process on sexual harassment. However, there has been no external review either of the policy or the state of the party in this regard, both of which would be considered best practice. Equally, having a policy is not enough. It must be monitored, promoted and enforced and it appears that any discussion of how this happens has been put off into yet another internal review. Indeed, the make-up of Labour’s leadership means there is now effectively no woman at the top of the party to whom a woman member might bring a harassment complaint.

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We must strengthen the systems that support women at every level of the party and ensure that they not only have policies in place that enable safety, but the practices that enforce that. We cannot turn a blind eye to the behaviour of powerful men (at all levels) whose talents are seen as so valuable to us that we overlook poor behaviours. We saw from the devastating effects of the Chris Rennard case on the Liberal Democrats where that can lead.

Women must feel able and comfortable to put themselves forward and forge a path for themselves through all areas of the party. This must happen in our representation and it must happen in making the party a safe space for women campaigners. But it must also happen in the softer spaces too.

Because between representation and safety lies a whole range of areas where women are treated differently. Whoever you supported in the leadership contest, last year we should all be ashamed of some of the disgraceful gendered insults thrown at the female candidates. These were women ready and able to put themselves forward at least in part because of the way the Labour party had fought to ensure they were able to do so. But once again the women who might have looked up to them saw that being a woman at the top comes with a harder fight, against a wider sea of adversity, than it was for the men they ran against.

This is not to say the wrong people won. That is not the point. If you did not agree with the politics of Liz Kendall or Yvette Cooper you must have every right to say so. But if you cannot say so without their gender being part of your arguments then you do not have a legitimate claim to your grievance.

Social media has exposed some of the nastier parts of our political debate that never really went away. Being a woman with an opinion online can be a soul-destroying thing to be. I love a good ruck and I am happy to argue over politics and strategy until the cows come home. And I started my career in telesales. There is very little that will get through my thick skin (though please do resist seeing this as a challenge).

But when I speak to other women about doing what I do, their fear is palpable. Women – great and diverse women with important things to say to and about our party – are being put off doing so because of the poison of our levels of political debate. It does not matter which part of the political or Labour spectrum you fall on; we are all poorer as a result of not hearing those voices.

So this is why feminism still matters. Because women’s voices are still being silenced. And when we do not hear the widest range of voices, we fail to understand the widest range of views. Labour must not and cannot be a narrow party. We cannot and must not tolerate any narrowing of our debate. Women’s voices must be heard.


Emma Burnell is a political blogger and campaigner



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Emma Burnell

is a political blogger and campaigner


  • “I am often told the Labour party does not need feminism any more” – I’m guessing it was a man who said that?
    For the answer we need to look no further than last years’ leadership contests. Despite having some fantastic women putting their names forward for both leader and deputy, we still managed to end up with an all male leadership team who then appointed an all male top table.
    In fact a couple of times I was told (by men) that the leadership contest was a straight fight between Corbyn and Burnham with the women not mentioned at all. So yes, quotas are still necessary but they need to be extended to every level of the Labour party until something approaching parity is reached. I also strongly believe that we should look at applying such rules right across society next time we’re in government.

  • Always works well the nonsense by the likes of Emma. It’s why so many voted for the pink bus malarkey and not the party now in Government thanks to the crass stupidity….

    I don’t expect Ms Burnell to ever wake up and I suspect she will only be happy when ‘inequality’ is on the other foot but with people like Christabel also rallying to the sisters banner while conveniently forgetting that WOMEN had a WOMAN option in the Leadership contest but most didn’t chose it because they thought they weren’t fit for purpose and not because they were a WOMAN, it’s little wonder that beyond the ‘sisters bubble’ the ‘massive issue’ is little more than a yawn feast for the majority of the electorate, no matter what their gender is!

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