This edition of Progress is being guest-edited and written by women. So this column is dedicated to what I believe the young people call ‘signal boosting’, highlighting women whose contribution to the Labour party is unjustly underrated, misunderstood, or underappreciated.
This is a sad tradition in our party. Who recalls Ethel Donald – Herbert Morrison would have been helpless without his private secretary. Or Peggy Herbison, who was as significant a figure as any in the Wilson era attempts to reform the welfare state? Or Barbara Wootton, one of the leading thinkers of her time, yet whose legacy is largely neglected today?
Thankfully, this is one traditional Labour position in decline. More women in today’s Labour party are in the limelight. They are still undermined and underestimated, however.
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, for example, has probably the toughest job in Labour politics. A combination of perceived structural and policy-setting weakness, internal division, a sense of complacency and constant negotiation with the party leadership about their freedoms has left it on the floor. She has a mountain to climb.
Dugdale has approached this daunting prospect with an energy and clarity which has been sorely missing in the party. She has made bold policy moves, from tax to care workers’ pay, while keeping up a sustained attack on Scottish National party performance in government. Yet, at the same time, she is defending Labour’s position on issues not of her making, like trying to thread the needle of Trident replacement.
The leader is battling hard against a political current running firmly against her. That she has been able to set a new political agenda is a victory for her which deserves admiration across the party, irrespective of the results in May.
So far, she has received precious little credit for her performance, except, intriguingly, from the Westminster shadow cabinet, which is now more understanding of the challenges of leading a party that appears divided, weak, and self-critical. After her recent presentation to the shadow cabinet on Scottish Labour’s challenges in May, several of its members wondered whether Labour nationally had the clarity of analysis and sense of direction she has given Scottish Labour. Dugdale may well have a bruising Scottish election, but she has at least given the party north of the border the chance to land a few punches.
Iron in the fire
One quality Labour’s current generation of women campaigners, in all wings of the party, have in abundance is guts. They are willing to stand up for their beliefs, take the flak, and keep on going. Perhaps this is because the abuse women get in politics is so consistent that the extra pressure that stems from controversy seems less significant. One place where strength of will is most essential is the National Executive Committee, a body which will define Labour’s future more than either the shadow cabinet or the parliamentary Labour party.
The younger women on the NEC, and especially departing youth rep Bex Bailey, have shown their courage in abundance. When under sustained, and often vitriolic, attack from a faction in the party that believes itself ascendant, it takes nerve to publicly and calmly offer reasoned dissent to attempts to use structural changes to win political battles. Bailey has done this with composure, and deserves to retain her place on the NEC.
Bailey, Ellie Reeves and Johanna Baxter’s strength could prove crucial to Labour’s future, as may Shabana Mahmood, who not only had the courage of her convictions in refusing to serve under Jeremy Corbyn, but was willing to replace his hand-picked representative on the NEC. Similarly tough is Jasmin Beckett, a young working-class woman from Liverpool who succeeded Bailey as youth rep on the NEC last month. She joins new chair of Labour Students Kate Dearden and new chair of Young Labour Caroline Hill, who together complete an all-female team heading up Labour’s youth movement.
Showing some steel
Turning back to London, there are a number of new Labour women members of parliament who have shown real steel in their first few months in Westminster. This column has mentioned Redcar MP Anna Turley before, but several more deserve the same appellation.
Jo Cox has been a principled campaigner on Syria, one of the few consistently willing to risk unpopularity to argue for her belief on what is right for Syrians, criticising government policy while not shrinking from the flaws of inaction. That will not win her factional praise, but shows a vital honesty on dealing with the world as it is.
Similarly, Ruth Smeeth has stood up both for her constituents’ jobs and for her pre-parliamentary work combatting racism and antisemitism, both issues which require a rare strength. Karin Smyth, a former NHS manager, has been leading much of the work of the PLP grouping Labour for the Common Good, trying to set out a positive message for Labour’s future.
Dawn Butler, chair of the women’s parliamentary Labour party, has taken various stands, warning that she would not let women be the victims of the government’s boundary review, and threatening an ‘almighty revolt’ should – him again – Galloway be readmitted to the party.
Finally, the most neglected and underappreciated work of all is done in the Labour whips’ office. There, Vicky Foxcroft and Holly Lynch have been working to hold the PLP together, despite each being attacked for their loyalty – Foxcroft as a target for deselection and Lynch as one of those dissenting from the leadership on Syria. Many of these women are not regular television fixtures or rent-a-quotes, but their talent and commitment deserves far broader recognition.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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