Yesterday, both prospective Labour party leaders made a pledge to women: whether it’s Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith who gets elected, Labour’s rules will be changed to ensure that, in future, there will be at least one woman as the leader or as a deputy leader of the party.
In my darkest moments, this announcement reminded me of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Although, knowing the Labour party, it’d involve getting pink upholstery to target female sunbathers and having a fight about the reliability of polling data as the waves come crashing down around us.
Yes, fixing the dearth of women at the top of the Labour party is much-needed news. In the recently announced regional mayoral contests, not a single candidate put forward by Labour – that’s in Liverpool, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands – was a woman. Only one, Luciana Berger, even made it to the shortlists. Talented women – Stella Creasy, for example – repeatedly miss out on parliamentary leadership roles, while women of similar political values to popular men are sidelined (compare the response to Corbyn with the repeatedly rejected Diane Abbott). Policy to help change this can only be welcomed. But, at this point, individual, positive measures feel tarnished by the bigger, murkier picture.
It was only this weekend that George Galloway – former Labour party MP and current-day misogynist – announced he was de-registering Respect as a political party, claiming instead that they “support Corbyn’s Labour Party”. Galloway, if you recall, lost his last parliamentary seat in 2015 to Labour’s Naz Shah following what Shah called a “sexist smear campaign” – a campaign in which he publicly accused her of lying about her forced marriage. Before that, he described raping an unconscious woman as “bad manners”.
I can’t imagine Corbyn will let Galloway back in the party; last year, MP Dawn Butler suggested he had no desire to. But it should stick in all of our throats that Galloway feels that – to use his words – “Corbyn’s Labour” is a place that he not only wants to join, but thinks would welcome him with open arms.
Contrast that with the feelings of some women at every level of the Labour party. The group of 44 female MPs who wrote an open letter to Jeremy Corbyn about the “culture of hatred” that has "disproportionately affected” women and non-white individuals. Or the member of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee, Johanna Baxter, who was close to tears and literally trembling on Channel Four news over intimidation she received over whether to put Corbyn on the leadership ballot. Or the female student at last week's BBC hustings who said, after witnessing the hostility at a youth conference, she would feel more welcome at a Conservative party gathering than September's Labour conference.
It was only this weekend that misogynist George Galloway announced he was de-registering Respect as a political party, claiming instead that they ‘support Corbyn’s Labour Party’
It would be one thing if this toxic culture were being sufficiently addressed, but the response to it by some members, commentators and party leaders – either excuses, turning it back on themselves (“I’m abused, too”) or outright denial – is as disturbing as the culture itself.
MP Jess Phillips– routinely called “mouthy” – spoke of how she was so disturbed by threats she’s installing a panic room at her office. The reaction on social media, among some sympathy, was a mixture of victim-blaming and claims she was making it up entirely.
A number of women – like Heidi Alexander, Lilian Greenwood, and yesterday Chi Onwurah – have spoken critically of their experience in the shadow cabinet and, at best, are receiving the political equivalent of the return to “Calm down, dear”.
The voices of women – the ones who have actually experienced what they’re highlighting – are shouted down, derided as hysteria or nonsense. In this climate, everything is a matter of “Who’s side are you on?”
It does not bode well that, in response to the newly announced pledge on female leaders, a source close to Corbyn’s campaign told the Guardian that it could be used to replace the current deputy leader, Tom Watson. Women’s representation, it seems, can be reduced to a weapon in the fight between the boys.
Whichever man wins come September needs to not only think about the women who should be in positions of power in the future but, more than that, think about every woman who deserves to feel the party is their home. As it stands, there is a dark cloud around Labour and women, which, frankly, feels increasingly hard to shift.