When Labour leadership challenger Jess Phillips urged men to ‘pass the mic’ to a woman on the top job, telling Sky’s Sophy Ridge it would ‘look bad’ if Labour failed to elect a woman, she more or less admitted not being up to the job. Surely the weakest argument any leadership candidate could use is demanding a step-up based on their sex? In effect, Phillips is trying to knock out the leading candidate, Keir Starmer, because he’s a man.
We heard a similar argument on Question Time last week. When Laurence Fox was asked who he preferred as the Labour leader, he replied ‘Keir Starmer – he just looks like he can take Boris on quite well.’ Quick as a flash, Shami Chakrabarti – who had only just declared that she wasn’t going to share her opinion on the Labour leadership race – suddenly developed a view and snapped back: ‘You don’t think any of the four women?’ Laurence, now being lauded as a hero of the anti-woke fight-back pointed out: ‘It’s not about women! Jeepers creepers!’ He added, rather sarcastically: ‘Sorry, let me rewind: any of the women. Is that better? Any woman because it’s really important what gender you are, what sex you are rather than what your policies are and how you approach politics… Come on.’
Many have criticised Fox for sneering complacency. But regardless of his tone, he has a point. His reply at least nodded to a political viewpoint, choosing a would-be leader he considered capable of being a credible opponent to Boris Johnson (and rather ruining his opponents’ accusations that he’s a proto-Tory).
In contrast, the ‘pass the mic’ approach sidelines political difference. In her interview with Ridge, Phillips complained that she’s fed up of hearing ‘we have to pick the best person for the job’ because they never mean the ‘best person, they always mean the best man’. Really? Are Labour members inherently bigoted against women, unable to objectively assess political attributes beyond the gender prism? This accusation seems particularly ludicrous when levelled at a party so much in thrall to identity politics that it sometimes feels more like a student union than an organisation set up to defend the working class. It is Labour that championed all-women shortlists (which Jess Phillips herself gained from), justified by the notion that us women need extra help just to level the playing field. The party can hardly be said to institutionally hold women back.
What Phillips and Baroness Chakrabarti seem to have missed is that four out of five of the contenders for Labour leadership are women. This doesn’t feel like a misogynistic contest contrived by macho brutes to exclude the sisterhood. And on those odds, surely there is a very good (80 per cent) chance that one could end up as party leader?
What’s more, UK politics has been swimming in female leaders over recent years. I may disagree profoundly with Scottish nationalism, but the SNP has a hugely successful woman at its helm. Until recently, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and the Conservative Party all had female leaders. (I’m not sure if we can count Change UK in this list, but lest we forget, that grouping was led by a woman, too.) But the demise of Leanne Wood, Jo Swinson, Theresa May and Anna Soubry was inflicted by party members or the electorate due to the failure of their policies rather than any deep-seated attachment to testosterone.
Ironically, pleading for positive discrimination rather goes against Phillips’s own reputation for straight-talking and standing up for herself. All the more reason why I find her resorting to identity engineering so depressing. It patronises those women who are leaders on their own merit; it implies women cannot succeed without a leg-up, that being a woman is a qualification in and of itself.
I prefer to take Phillips more seriously than she takes herself. I want to judge her as an equal to any man, based on her politics. But that’s not so easy. I am unclear where she stands on any issue except Brexit – where she seemed firmly in the rejoin the EU/ Remain camp (until she changed her mind yesterday). So with such a political vacuum, what we are left with is her forceful personality.
Unlike others who find it grating, I don’t mind her say-it-as-it-is gritty gobbiness; I’m the last person to criticise a loud-mouthed ‘woman of the people’ type. Her self-assuredness in her own abilities is rather impressive. In her book, Everywoman, she brags, ‘I deserve a massive wedge of credit for my own success’ – a rather refreshing contrast to the simpering victim-feminism so fashionable today. But such self-confidence means she should believe in her own character, political skills and intellect to secure the leadership position. She doesn’t need to resort to special pleading that effectively asks the only male candidate to stand aside to give her a chance at winning.
Phillips is famed for taking on Corbynistas, such as the infamous incident in which she told Diane Abbott to ‘fuck off’. Mind you, that run-in was in response to Corbyn handing the four top jobs in his team to men. She explained to the Guardian, ‘there’s something wrong with the Labour party… you have to be a remarkable and amazing woman to rise to the top’. Well, I would hope so. Would it be preferable to argue for a fairer system whereby the unremarkable should be considered leadership material? With such an attitude, can we wonder why mediocrity is now a mark of Labour’s hierarchy?
In fact, I would rather like an amazing Labour woman – or man – to emerge as a formidable opponent to the Tories, but I am rather underwhelmed by all the leadership candidates. None are particularly remarkable, and what is amazing is a general tone-deafness to the political reasons for Labour’s recent electoral thrashing. Jess, the mic has already been passed, not by men to tick gender boxes, but by an electorate determined their democratic mandate to Brexit was honoured. That political decision trumped any qualms about party allegiances, let alone the niceties of identity politics.
Until Labour learns that lesson, whatever the sex of their leader, they will be doomed to hitting a glass political ceiling of their own making.