The Thin Pink Line: Labour and Modern Progressivism

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn at the Royal Gallery. cred. Roger Harris. Contains Parliamentary information licensed under the Open Parliament Licence v3.0.


Alfred J. Knox | 23 May 2018


That a woman has never even come close to leading the Labour Party is a tired and embarrassing statistic. But what does this reveal about modern progressivism in general?

“In my years in the House, I have long heard the Labour party asking what the Conservative party does for women. Well, it just keeps making us Prime Minister.” In one biting comeback, Theresa May, during her first Prime Minister’s Questions, exposed the unwritten truth about not only the Labour Party but the political Left at large: the movement may well champion a people, but it will never let those people lead. To those Corbynistas spitting up their lattés at the very suggestion that their own cause may, in fact, not be the noble success they believe it to be, I ask this: where are your female leaders?


Long a bugbear of Labour, the fact is a woman has not only never led the Party but has never even come close to it. In the 2015 leadership election Yvette Cooper came third with 17%, and in 1994 Margaret Beckett also came third with 18.9%. The only other two women to contest a leadership election were nothing more than also-rans: Liz Kendall in 2015 and Diane Abbott in 2010, achieving only 4.5% and 7.4% respectively. Contesting only three of the eighteen leadership elections held since 1922, and accounting for a paltry 8% of total leadership candidates, women are a total nonentity at the very top of Labour.


This is a thorny reality; a salt pill to any member who believes in the myth of the representative Labour Party. They believe it is an institution that is just as diverse as the society and the communities that they live in. To a degree I understand that: all-women shortlists, pink vans, and wheeling-out Harriet Harman every time the leadership’s circuits crash all combine in a cake that is much easier to wolf down than what I am offering.


I am well-prepared for the responses to my claims: that Wendy Alexander, Johanne Lamont and Kezia Dugdale have led the Scottish Labour Party; that there are strong, prominent and capable women on the front benches of the Party; that, because the Conservative Party is much worse to women, Labour’s behaviour becomes irrelevant. My responses, however, come easy.


One: Scottish Labour does not have the burden of the UK Party: it is not the one that must engage in the full-scale economic and social transformation necessary to achieve the goals the Party seeks for itself. Accordingly, electing a female Scottish leader becomes a low-risk means of signalling gender progressivism. Indeed, the Labour Left decried Dugdale as a sell-out and a centrist, and yet celebrates Richard Leonard as a ‘true leader’; it is bitterly amusing to note that Mr Leonard is a 55-year-old, grey-haired, white man.


Two: Dianne Abbott and Emily Thornberry, arguably the most senior women in the Labour machine, rank up there with the very worst holders of their offices - both are incompetent at the very least, making basic mistakes with a regularity which is beneath the office they hold. Indeed, Miss Abbott’s sole qualification for her role seems to be her historic dalliances with Mr Corbyn. Padding out the Shadow Cabinet are the likes of Kate Osmar, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Raynor, who assumed their positions after about a year in Parliament through nothing more than it being convenient to throw them into a job that nobody else wanted. The rest are nobodies you have never heard of: Sue Hayman? Christina Rees? Lesley Laird? Thought not.


Three: The Conservative Party can name-check the sitting Prime Minister and the Iron Lady alike. The runners and riders for succession to Theresa May include Andrea Leadsome - whose stalwart leadership of the House of Commons has transformed her into one of the most respected politicians in Britain - as well as Priti Patel - who is reforming herself into the backbench-Brexit candidate and voice of the 52%. Each of these women is much more likely and far more capable than their very male opponents Boris Johnson (too hated), David Davis (too incompetent), and Jacob Rees-Mogg (too Rees-Mogg). To say the Conservative Party is worse when it comes to women is bluster, a fib that may soothe the wounds of the Left’s hypocrisy but lacks the basic foundations of a truth. But, even if that were not true, it would not matter. Why? Because the Right has never and will never claim to be the protectors of a specific group; it would be repulsed by the very notion that one group of people should be artificially elevated for no other reason than they belong to that group. The free market capitalists and self-identifying meritocrats of the Right would naturally sneer at such base identity politics.


And there’s the rub. It is the Left and always the Left which claims to protect and elevate groups of people, but never elevates those groups within its own movement; the British Labour Party and their problem with women serves only to illustrate this wider issue within the political Left. And it can be understood with a brief sweep of the Left’s political values.


The Left’s raison d'être is the championing of all oppressed peoples. Protecting and elevating minorities in the pursuit of equality is at the centre of any practical Leftist philosophy. To this end the Left have exalted people of colour, women, members of the LQBTQ+ community, Muslims, and the working classes in general. There is only one issue: any ultimate success in this endeavour would signal the end of the Left as a political movement. The moment when oppressed people are no longer oppressed is also the moment when the Left has no reason to exist. Herein lies the incentive in holding that off.


There is no reason to believe this is intentional, but to a certain extent we have seen flashes of this attitude within the Labour Party. In a world where capitalism has reduced inequality and where progressive social change has led to more inclusivity and greater diversity, Labour has sadly repositioned itself to the point of protecting and legitimising literal terrorists. It may be a well-played tune, but that is only so because it is so meaningful: Mr Corbyn has courted the IRA and Hamas, seemingly because they are the most oppressed people he could find. Mr Corbyn may well be deluded, but he handily demonstrates the narrowing of the Left’s scope. And in any case, the reason these terrorists are oppressed is because people like them should be. His handling of the anti-Semitism row is another neat example of this: because Jewish people do not seem obviously and visibly oppressed, he feels no need to protect them, even going so far as to legitimise the fervent and violent anti-Semitic views.


Let us assume the Left’s goal: the abolition of all inequality and oppression; a utopia of systematic and artificial similarity; the imposition of a state ideal upon all individuals. At that point the Left has nothing else to fight for, and has one of two options: it either withers and dies, or it becomes the oppressive and violent state necessary to prop up such a system. The Right has no such issue, because at the point where it has achieved its goals, its new purpose of being is to conserve the new status quo.


The Labour party’s issues with women is therefore indicative of wider issues. I could have chosen to write about its issues with Jewish people in greater depth, or I could have chosen to write about France’s La France Insoumise or Germany’s Social Democratic Party. In every case the same principle truth is exposed: they are led by crusty old white men who epitomise the very establishment they seek to break down. To have a woman, or an otherwise minority individual, as leader would act against their own self-interest; it would demonstrate that there are ever-decreasing barriers to minority success in politics and society; it would be the death knell of the entire cause. If I was part of a minority or oppressed group, I would look up to the Left and their darlings - Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Martin Schultz, Bernie Sanders – and ask myself: “what do they know about my experience? What will they do for people like me?” The answer, I suspect, is bugger-all.


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