There is now a 90 per cent chance that Liz Truss will be the UK’s next prime minister. If this happens, the Conservative Party will have produced three female prime ministers whereas Labour has yet to produce one.  So what exactly is stopping the supposedly more progressive party from having a female lead?

Too Progressive in All the Wrong Ways

Harriet Harman, the longest continuous serving female MP, suggests that potential leaders have actively challenged the structure of the party, disadvantaging their campaigns. Candidates have demanded greater equality throughout the party, proposing policies such as reserving three cabinet seats for women or having half of Labour’s constituencies run by women. It is obvious, though disappointing, why these potential leaders have not been elected. For their male counterparts, these progressive policies directly threaten their position and hegemony. Given that party membership remains male-dominated, it’s not surprising that a woman has never been elected.

It is also increasingly the case that women’s campaigns are more volatile than those of men. In the 2019 Labour Leadership Election, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey lost significant support owing to pledges to protect female single-sex spaces, seemingly siding against LGBTQ+ campaigners. Whilst Kier Starmer was able to quietly reject the pledges, this topic proved to be the breaking point for the two female candidates, with debates over what it is to be a woman dividing voters.

This rift in ideology over the nature and extent of Labour’s progressiveness is likely one reason for the party’s lack of female leadership.

One Type of Female Leader

It is no coincidence that our two female prime ministers graduated from Oxford. And the similarities don’t stop there. Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher both reached their positions after working their way through conventional cabinet posts, such as Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Education. Despite leading the party almost 40 years apart, May and Thatcher also share an ideological resemblance.

Thatcher boasted that she was more proud of being the first prime minister with a science degree than being the first woman to hold the role. Theresa May, although proud to call herself a feminist, scrapped Harman’s Law (a policy that required public bodies to consider how they can reduce socio-economic inequality) in her post as Minister for Women and Equalities in 2012, stating that it was ‘unworkable.’ Both leaders were symbolic in the journey to greater gender equality in British politics, and yet, neither had the women’s liberation movement at the forefront of their leadership agenda.

In comparison, Angela Rayner — who has been Labour Deputy Leader since 2020 — left school at 16 and pregnant, then worked as a care worker before becoming a trade union representative. Veteran MP Harriet Harman who once led the party as Deputy Leader, recently stated that it’s ‘downright embarrassing’ that Labour has never had a female leader.

The paths of Harman and Rayner could not be more different from those of Thatcher and May, which begs an obvious question: Is the UK only ready for one type of female prime minister? In this case, the fault is not with Labour per se, but rather with the whole British political establishment that actively prefers Oxbridge graduates who help uphold conventional power structures.

Inappropriate Finger-Pointing

The history of Conservative abuse directed at successful female Labour MPs is disturbing. Just recently, Conservative MPs accused Rayner of ‘Basic Instinct ploy to distract Boris.’ Not only did these MPs suggest that Rayner was attracted to the Prime Minister, but it was also implied that someone like her could not compete with Johnson’s ‘Oxford Union debating training’ — a reflection on her supposedly inferior comprehensive school education.

Less recently, in 2019, Conservative MPs in South Derby set up; a website used to publish anti-Labour messages under the name of another veteran Labour MP. The South Derby MPs then fruitlessly tried to reason that Beckett’s lack of website was evidence of her taking voters for granted.

These are just two examples of successful Labour female MPs being maliciously targeted by Conservative Party members. This prevailing misogyny has been cited as another reason why Labour’s female MPs are reluctant to lead the party.

No Shortage of Good Women

As of 2022, Labour has 104 female MPs from a total of 199. Sixteen out of 33 members of the Shadow Cabinet are women. However, despite an almost even split, ideological divisions within the party create additional obstacles for women to gain leadership backing. It comes down to male MPs being brave enough to widen their focus beyond the class struggle to encompass gender equality. However, as already indicated, Labour is not the sole cause of the problem.

Should Liz Truss win, she will be the third British female prime minister to have come out of Oxford. This points to the need for a radical socio-political shake-up. The political establishment needs to start accepting candidates from a wider education pool. The bullying and sexism must stop. Labour needs to sober up and see the potential in its female members. And as a public, we need to show support for any candidate that has the right ideas about creating a stronger, better society — regardless of their gender or academic credentials.

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