As a great woman once said: “Who runs the world? Girls.” And yet, global women leaders are slipping away. In January, it was Jacinda Ardern announcing she was stepping down. And more recently, Nicola Sturgeon.
As we emerge into a post-Liz-Truss-premiership world, the topic of women prime ministers has been a hot one. Specifically, the question being asked is: how have the Conservatives elected 3 women leaders, and the Labour Party none? The Liberal Democrats have had one, whilst Carla Denyer serves as one of the current co-leaders of the Green Party.
So, why have Labour never had a woman leader?
It isn’t due to a lack of numbers. Figures from the House of Commons Library reveal that 220 women were elected to Parliament at the last general election in December 2019 – the highest number ever. As of March 2023, there are 225 female MPs in the House of Commons. Of the 220 women elected to Parliament in December 2019, 104 of these were Labour, constituting 51% of the party’s MPs, and 34% of the overall percentage of female MPs.
Looking at the most recent Labour Party leadership election in 2020, there were four women candidates in the running with Sir Keir Starmer the only man.
Five candidates received enough nominations to proceed to the second round of nominations, namely Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry. Long-Bailey, Nandy and Starmer received enough nominations to proceed to the final ballot, with Starmer going on to secure the leadership. Even with 80% of the contenders being women, a man still prevailed.
It isn’t due to a lack of leadership talent either. Women in Westminster are finally getting the recognition they deserve, with the ‘Women in Westminster: The 100’ initiative annually recognising those most influential figures, regardless of political allegiance. Meanwhile, the Labour Party and Labour Women’s Network collaborated to found the Jo Cox Women in Leadership Programme, designed to develop female change makers in Parliament, and now having produced its fifth cohort.
To name a few, the likes of Lisa Nandy, Emily Thornberry, Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper, and Angela Raynor represent the talent the party has to offer. In Labour’s shadow cabinet of 30 members, 16 are women. Meanwhile, the current Conservative cabinet holds 7. Labour’s shadow cabinet boasts more than double the number of women than the Conservative Party’s cabinet.
At a time when women MPs are growing in number in Westminster, it is difficult to fathom how Labour have not produced a woman leader.
There appears to be a multitude of reasons why. The first dates to the roots of the party itself. Having grown out of the trade union movement, the Labour Party has historically been the party for working-class men. In a 2019 interview, former deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman questioned whether ‘perhaps it’s because the women in the Labour Party have consciously challenged the structures of the party and the way it works, striving to change the way we do politics.’
She offered an explanation that ‘if you argue for positive action, which the women’s movement in the Labour Party has, then that will be and has been resisted. If you are always pushing at barriers, you’re a productive force, but not necessarily a popular one. Those leading that charge can come to be considered too unpopular for the top job.’ Perhaps it is the working-class men of old who harken back to the party roots and resist the women’s movement. This could offer an explanation for why Starmer was successful with the party membership in 2020, who are perhaps not yet ready to realise that a woman leader would be a success. Tellingly, when offered four capable women leaders at the 2019 leadership election, they [Labowiur] chose the only man.
Since the 2019 general election in which it secured its lowest number and proportion of seats since 1935, it has been no secret that the Labour Party have faced an uphill battle to rebuild. Ever since, Labour have hung their hopes on a return to the past successes of Blairism in the hope that this claws back some support from a largely just-right-of-centre electorate. Starmer’s just-left-of-centre policies have succeeded in doing this. Both former barristers, Starmer has done well to present himself as Blair 2.0, only with slightly less charisma. Judging from the opinion polls, it appears to have been a healthy choice for the party thus far.
Similarly, perhaps Labour felt they needed an uncontroversial choice to face Boris Johnson’s smoke and mirrors tactics at the despatch box. Who better than a former barrister?
Another reason is that Labour seemingly are in no rush to elect a woman leader. Both Theresa May and Liz Truss were installed at times of crises for the Conservatives, and both shouldered the blame for their party’s misdoings. The Conservatives are happy to deflect the public’s attention from their errors by installing women leaders, even if they end up serving as scapegoats months later.
Liz Truss’ premiership is a good example that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The Conservative Party seemed to shoehorn her in 1) to go 3-0 up against Labour in women prime ministers in the name of gesture politics, and 2) for her malleability. Labour, in the meantime, are perhaps waiting for a less turbulent economic and political climate before they introduce their first woman leader. Starmer had the power to withdraw from the leadership election in 2020 and guarantee a woman leader was installed but did not do so. It is clear that Labour will not appoint a woman leader just to claw one back against the Conservatives, even if the time is right.
The support is there. Harriet Harman in both 2019 and 2022 questioned why there has been no woman Labour leader. John McDonnell was of the view in 2019 that the next leader after Jeremy Corbyn had to be a woman. In 2022, Angela Raynor confirmed that Labour is ready for one, and that she is laying the groundwork.
Progress has been slow, but the last three years have brought positive change. Anneliese Dodds served as Shadow Chancellor to the Exchequer from April 2020 to May 2021, becoming the first woman appointed to the position, with Rachel Reeves holding the position since. Perhaps Reeves takes the step up once Starmer has finished his work?
A woman Labour leader is coming, and it will be celebrated once it happens. However, it may not be until the late 2020s that we see it.