by W. Stephen Gilbert
A recent front that has opened up against Jeremy Corbyn is sex. Having exhausted their disdain of his global responsibility for anti-semitism, jihadism and homophobia, the malcontents are now roundly accusing him of misogyny, sexual discrimination and old-fashioned male chauvinism. Here is Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party (which in fact is a political party standing against the others, including Labour) on last week’s Any Questions? [BBC Radio 4]: “it’s a great shame that Jeremy’s done so little, frankly, for the many women voters in the Labour Party.
There is a male leader, there is a male deputy leader, there is a male Bristol mayor, there is a male London mayor, there is a male mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester, a male mayoral candidate for West Midlands, a male mayoral candidate for Liverpool, a male chair of the NEC and male chairs of all 14 affiliated unions. I think that says it all”.
Well, not quite all, because both the General Secretary and the President of the TUC, the body that represents all unions, are women, as are the Presidents of both UNISON and BECTU. But the wider point is of course that none of these posts, not a single one, is in Corbyn’s gift. His own position and that of his deputy were voted on by the party membership. The mayoral candidacies are settled by a local ballot (and Marvin Rees in Bristol and Sadiq Khan in London were selected before Corbyn became party leader). The chair of the NEC is elected from within the NEC. If Corbyn had tried to impose a chair, there would have been hell to pay and any argument that it was necessary to ensure that the chair was a woman would have cut no ice.
Walker went on to make an absurd point: “Both the Labour leadership contenders were asked by the Labour Women’s Network to subscribe to a whole list of demands about fair and equal representation of women in the Labour Party. Those demands included refusing to appear on any all-male panels. They’re doing it every other night in the leadership hustings”. So picture the scene: Corbyn refuses to debate the leadership because he and Owen Smith make an all-male panel. Who is going to accept that that is his reason for refusing? How can it be a criticism of Corbyn that his opponent is Owen Smith rather than Angela Eagle? How can the fact that the PLP selected Smith to be Corbyn’s challenger be resolved to satisfy the Labour Women’s Network (if indeed those women agree with Walker who, as I say, speaks for a party other than the Labour Party)?
Cat Smith, a Corbyn supporter who is in the shadow cabinet, was also on the Any Questions? panel. She pointed out that “Jeremy Corbyn was the first party leader in this country to put together a shadow cabinet that was gender-balanced”. “Not any more it’s not” interjected Walker, evidently unaware that the present shadow cabinet self-selected by being those prepared to serve. In fact, Cat Smith could have made the point that all three of Corbyn’s shadow cabinets have not merely been gender-balanced but each of them initially had a majority of women. Even the self-selected one had a female majority until Pat Glass abruptly had her mind changed.
Where the party membership have been given the chance to elect a woman, as in the leadership and deputy leadership elections last year, they declined to do so. In the leadership election, the two women candidates came third and fourth, the latter winning only 4.5 percent of the vote. Three of the five deputy leadership candidates were women but Tom Watson still won. But it isn’t only the wider membership that declines the invitation to discriminate positively. In the 2010 Labour leadership election, there was a single woman candidate who was eliminated in the first round. Candidacies are the prerogative of MPs and just eleven women MPs nominated her, as against twice as many men (one of whom, naturally, was Jeremy Corbyn). When I reveal that the woman in question was Diane Abbott, you will see that being a woman is not of itself sufficient to secure a fellow woman MP’s vote. She has to be a woman “who agrees with me”.
To be fair to her, Harriet Harman did nominate Abbott, coming good on her long-term advocacy of more women in the leadership, even though she clearly had fundamental policy differences with her nominee. But other fervent advocates of women in the leadership – Angela Eagle, for instance – did not. Were Diane Abbott now in the position that Corbyn finds himself, I find it hard to imagine that the parliamentary sisterhood would be behaving significantly differently.
Here’s the best joke of all, though. I set no store by opinion polls but many do, and when a finding is overwhelming it’s hard to ignore. So I just gently point out this statistic from a poll by YouGov this week. Support for Owen Smith among women voters: 33 percent. Support for Jeremy Corbyn among women voters: 67 percent. It seems that his gross and vile treatment of Labour women isn’t playing too badly for him.