The Labour leadership contest is in full swing, and as with almost any political decision in the current tempestuous climate, it is being billed as a battle not only for the future of the party involved, but also the country at large.
In the face of a strong Conservative majority, it is vital that Labour elects someone who is experienced, charismatic and ready to take risks. A wide range of declared or expected candidates think they are the one who can ‘save’ the Labour Party, and the majority of the leading names are women. But despite so many impressive female candidates, the most recent YouGov poll of Labour Party members named Sir Keir Starmer as the favourite to win. So is he the best candidate? Or is Labour’s sexism showing?
The YouGov poll was published on January 2nd and predicts that Keir Starmer will easily reach the final round, where he will comfortably defeat Rebecca Long-Bailey. Given the division faced by UK politics in general, and the Labour Party specifically, it is unsurprising that there is a plethora of candidates — declared or potential — advocating a plethora of views. Both the hard-left and the centre are represented; there are various levels of education, experience and wealth on show; and there are more BAME candidates than has been the case in previous Labour leadership contests. Among this eclectic mix, there is the usual potential for in-fighting, tactical alliances and surprise revelations, and YouGov are the first to emphasise that a poll is a snapshot, and should be seen as a guide not a prophecy. They are, however, the only pollster to have accurately predicted the outcome of every internal party contest since their foundation. So it’s worth taking them seriously.
Certainly, Keir Starmer’s pole position among Labour members is, as with most things in politics, the result of a complex web of identities, issues and interests. Starmer is a centrist — as are several other candidates, not least the more experienced Yvette Cooper. He campaigned for Remain in the Brexit referendum — as did the more charismatic Jess Phillips. He is a consistent supporter of measures against climate change — though less radical than Rebecca Long-Bailey. It seems there are several women who are more experienced, charismatic and green-minded than Sir Keir. So why is he the frontrunner?
Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University, who was involved in the running of the poll, has argued that it shows Labour members are ‘interested in picking the best person for the job, irrespective of gender’. This assessment is both a major overestimation of Starmer’s talent compared to his rival candidates, and a major underestimation of the importance of gender when it comes to political leaders.
Jess Phillips, Emily Thornberry and Angela Rayner are among several women more successful than Starmer — or any of the men on Labour’s frontbench — at confronting and unsettling Boris Johnson, a crucial skill for the Leader of the Opposition. And Starmer played a key part in shifting Labour Party policy towards advocating a second Brexit referendum, a stance which caused significant confusion and hardly boosted their electoral prospects. Additionally, he represents a London constituency and has significant personal wealth; neither factor is likely to trigger the rebuilding of the crumbling ‘Red Wall’ of Northern constituencies who voted Conservative last month for the first time in decades.
Keir Starmer, then, is not the ‘best person for the job’. He is the frontrunner primarily because his face matches 23 out of 25 previous Prime Ministers. His allies might argue that voters don’t care if the Labour leader has ‘ovaries or a Northern accent’, but as a Northern woman, I beg to differ. As well as the obvious challenges facing a wealthy London MP in rebuilding the ‘Red Wall’, Labour has never had a female leader, and this does matter. It matters because when women are present in a Parliament, the legislation of that Parliament improves. It matters because according to multiple academics — Campbell et al. (2010) and Mansfield (1999) to name a few — the concept that the gender of a representative doesn’t matter is false and perpetuates sexism. It matters, because in this leadership race, the candidate who is the ‘best person for the job’ is not the white man who fits the mould. It is one of the fierce women who break it.