Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Sexism really does exist on the left

Jess Phillips says that leftwing men can be ‘the worst’ when it comes to sexism. Fellow Labour party members should not be so quick to dismiss her, writes Ellie Groves 

Men are not all bad. You would think that this would not need to be said, but I feel as though I should start this article by stating unequivocally that I think, overwhelmingly, those who identify as men are in fact not actually on the whole bad – which, ironically enough, my need to state this in itself gets to the essence of this article.

Labour men have been at the front of fighting for equality. True enough. But leftwing men cannot be sexist? Now, there is a statement I take issue with. At the weekend, Jess Phillips, the member of parliament for Birmingham Yardley stated that leftwing men are in fact often the most sexist – or at least worse in their sexism.

This may be because, more often than not, they simply do not recognise the sexism. All too often men on the left are fine with – and do encourage – women to be around the table, to be in the room, at the march, but when the women speak up, try to lead, take control they are shushed, seen as a threat and sadly all too often threatened. They may not always realise they are doing this, but it often seems as though the men mentioned feel as though they are better placed to fight for equality than the women are. Of course men can be feminist allies. Many on the left are. But the reality is that to be truly pushing forward gender issues women have to be leading, not be ‘waiting their turn’, or staying silent. Intersectionality should be presented as the ideal way to discuss equality issues and this involves being inclusive and allowing space for women to lead.

But the reality is that Labour has never had a female leader – there are many reasons for this. There always are, aren’t there? There are always excuses, always explanations, but ultimately what it boils down to is that there have been some amazing women who have done so much for equality – Harriet Harman, Jess Phillips, Mo Mowlam, Barbara Castle to name a few – but as a party we still fall behind in terms of leadership.

This does not seem like an accident; leadership and culture go hand in hand. The Labour party has a culture of shouting down women and, in some cases, of just shouting. The night of the election I found myself in a bar full of Labour activists, supporters and shouters. It seemed such a shame that this was being replicated in such an aggressive form in a political setting.

This creates a culture, as does booing Laura Kuenssberg – an actual thing that happened – which can make women feel unwelcome. One man even starting shouting that he wanted her to die. This same man had been campaigning to get a woman MP re-elected: he would probably argue that he is progressive and perhaps use that to attempt to prove he is not sexist. But to me shouting at a young woman that he wanted another woman to die seems not at all like an ally who understands that two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner, but rather one who feels women should either know their place or be a Tory.

Those who read Phillips’ remarks and felt affronted, attacked her, or kindly explained that she misunderstands, and Corbyn has in fact done more for women than Harman, are part of the problem not the solution. As a general rule it is far better for men to support women than try to speak for them to prove just how feminist they are. It does not how ‘progressive’ you are, how ‘liberal’, how much you agree that women should be MPs, should be paid equally, should not have to suffer abuse – if you do not listen when women say these things happen, do not listen when they have ideas and do not listen full stop – you are in fact not being feminist.

So no, men are not bad, but yes, leftwing men can be sexist. The sooner this is accepted and the questions asked are ‘what can we do to help?’ rather than ‘how can you say that?’ the fight for equality will be on the right track at least.


Ellie Groves is Chair of the Young Fabians National Executive. She tweets at  @EllieRuthGroves


Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Ellie Groves


  • People like Barbara castle were class acts,and Mo Mowlem helped bring permeant change for good. Harriet Harman was always there to promote the women’s angle. But using the word ‘shout’ in the same article as Jess Philips is unfortunate. I just cannot understand what is in the mind of some of our full -timers and just what is she trying to achieve by constantly attacking Labour. MPs are supposed to be real professionals and so often we just see ill – thought though self promotion speeches.

  • I am a left-wing psychotherapist and do find Jess Philips to be a genuine thorn in the side of Labour Party unity, lumping all Left-Wing men together with the accusation of sexism. She may have a certain experience of life that I do not share but tarring what must be about 200,000 Labour Party members in this way does seem unnecessarily provocative. The reality is that the way that some right-wing Labour members behave does not in any way support party unity and the singular lack of positive contribution is a disappointment to me and thousands of others in the party.

Sign up to our daily roundup email