Rocking the neoliberal boat: feminist politics and the Labour party.


  • Labour’s all-male lists
  • Yes, numbers matter
  • “It’s a man’s world”: local government and devolution
  • ‘Blair’s Babes’: it’s a neoliberal world. . . .
  • Opening up political discourse: democracy and Labour.

Labour’s all-male lists.
Labour MP Jess Phillips has accused Jeremy Corbyn of placing more importance on securing jobs for ‘his brothers in arms’ than advancing the cause of women, after the party selected male candidates for all three of next year’s regional mayoral elections (cited Heather Stewart [12 08 2016] ‘Call to tackle all-male list “ignored”’, The Guardian).

Phillips personalises the issue, which suggests it is an opportunistic attack on Corbyn as Labour leader. She shows a failure of awareness of both history and culture within Labour, in particular the impact of the New Labour years. The issue Phillips draws attention to is neither recent nor of Corbyn’s making, and more complicated than she seems to understand. [See ‘Sexism and activism: what’s the problem?’ and ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”. Reflections on the challenge for the “Left (and willing others)’. Both (10 10 2012) posted in ‘Essays’ category.] Does this mean her attack is disingenuous or malicious? Given that she has said that in an exchange with MP Diane Abbott, “I roundly told her to fuck off” (cited Rachel Cooke [06 03 2016] ‘Jess Phillips: someone to believe in’. The Observer), it’s probably the latter.

This commentary provides contextual evidence and analysis that helps explain (and negate) Phillips’ accusation, as well as providing a basis for constructive next steps to improve the situation.

Yes, numbers matter.
Let’s start with the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York, which brought together world leaders for two weeks in March 2016 to review and debate progress on ending gender inequality. Sascha Gabizon, executive director of Women in Europe for a Common Future, and co-facilitator of the Women’s Major Group, which represents the views of women in UN processes, speaking in New York before the talks, stated:

It is evident that policies, laws, public budgets and institutions need to be     improved and often changed, to ensure women’s and girls’ human rights are insured (cited Liz Ford [15 03 2016] ‘UN talks seek cash and “concrete action” on women’s rights’, The Guardian).

Ford warns that “world leaders face test on commitment to equality” and that there is “concern that nations may water down agreements” (Ford, ibid.). (For ‘nations’ read male politicians.) She concludes her report with this summary:

Over the next fortnight, more than 8,000 activists will attend more than 650       events at the UN and around New York. Most will be braced for attempts by member states to roll back previously agreed commitments to uphold women’s rights (Liz Ford, ibid.). (Emphasis added.) (For ‘member states’ read male politicians.)

The UN Commission on the Status of Women, in this its 60th session, is testament to women’s and feminists’ patience, political stamina and determination over the years, pursuing the goals of gender equality, social justice and human rights for girls and women.

Meanwhile, in the same month, Charlotte Proudman, barrister in family law, reports on gender equality in the UK judiciary:

A statistic that must give us serious cause for concern is that of 47 Council of     Europe nations, only Azerbaijan and Armenia had lower proportions of female members of the judiciary than the UK in 2014 (Charlotte Proudman [16 03 2016] ‘Women cannot wait 50 years for justice’, The Guardian).

Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s mantra more than a century ago recognized that the law constituted one of the greatest obstacles to women’s rights. More than 100 years later, the people writing and enforcing the law are disproportionately male, white and upper-class (ibid.). (Emphasis added.)

These statistics have been made visible since the 1970s via feminist scrutiny, analysis and critique. Proudman’s verdict is damning: ‘the law infantalises women, and denies them agency and autonomy over their own bodies (ibid.). But Supreme Court Justice Sumption claims that a rush for gender equality would have “appalling consequences for justice” and women should simply be “patient” and wait half a century for equality (cited Proudman). Proudman argues that quotas are needed “because men will not give up their privileged positions of power unless they are made to” (ibid.). She concludes;

For fundamental values of freedom, equality, liberty and justice to flourish, we need women to be represented in meaningful numbers among the judiciary. We can’t afford to wait until I’m 77 (bid.). (Emphasis added.)

Kate Green, shadow minister for women, commenting in the wake of a Fabian society report examining women’s representation within Labour party structures, declared:

We are proud of our record as the party that has led the way, with more women MPs than all the other parties put together, a majority of women in the shadow cabinet, and Labour women leading in Scotland and the House of Lords. Our party is determined to remain at the forefront of gender equality and women’s participation (cited, Rowena Mason [16 12 2015] ‘Women “face barriers” to reach top in Labour’, The Guardian).

The Fabian study found that “Labour has increased its proportion of female MPs to 43% through the use of all-women shortlists. But . . . found that where there is no positive discrimination, representation of women falls away” (ibid.). (Emphasis added.) The latter can be understood as evidence of men’s resistance (to women’s increased participation) and/or women’s reluctance (to participate).

There was disappointment among some senior Labour women that three elected leadership positions – leader, deputy and London mayoral candidate – went to men (ibid.). In his party conference speech in 2015, Tom Watson, having been elected as deputy leader, boldly declared:

We have to be a feminist party. A party for gender parity, equal representation in the House of Commons and in local government. Rooting out abuse and misogyny wherever it occurs (cited Rowena Mason, ibid.).

Speaking at the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, who last year unveiled a cabinet with an equal number of men and women “because it’s 2015”, announced:

I am going to keep saying loud and clear that I am a feminist until it is met with a shrug (Agencies, New York [18 03 2016] ‘It’s natural that I’m a feminist, says Canadian PM’, The Guardian).

It is obvious from the examples cited above, that numbers matter, women’s participation matters, our representation matters in the effort to shift organisational culture, to better represent society, and to improve fairness and deliver social justice. But, feminist values and purposes go beyond the rhetoric of equality, and mean more than just saying you believe in the equality of men and women, a discourse that anyway always takes elite men as its model and bench mark, unavoidably implying that women have to mimic or behave like men to be taken seriously, offered opportunities, achieve recognition, etc..

The feminist project also has implications for men and masculinities, and change in these ‘ideals’ and paradigms of manliness (see ‘Trident: are you manly enough?’ posted in ‘Presentations 2016’ category at Labour men like Watson demonstrate less awareness that women’s equality involves more than representation, more than numbers and bodies on parade. (See ‘Sexism and activism: what’s the problem?’ and ‘Thinking through and beyond “sexism”. Refections on the challenge for the “Left” [and willing others]’. Both posted in ‘Essays’ category at

“It’s a man’s world”: local government and devolution.
When Dorothy Thornhill won the election to become the first directly elected mayor of Watford, in Hertfordshire, her opponent [presumably a man] said, “you won’t last six months”. “Thirteen years on I’m still here”, she says drily (cited Susanna Rustin [03 02 2016] ‘It’s a man’s world: the council leaders driving the northern powerhouse’, The Guardian).

Apparently, in the chamber Thornhill was not seen as “big and tough enough” to survive the combative culture and succeed as a leader. “No wonder Thornhill calls local government a ‘pale, male world’” (ibid.).

Rustin’s report is accompanied by a photograph that makes the feminist heart sink: the leaders of Greater Manchester, all in dark suits and sombre ties – nine older white men (all smiling broadly), two unsmiling younger white men, and the instigator, George Osborne, the then Chancellor, beaming triumphantly – on the occasion of the announcement of its devolution deal in 2014, promoted as the beginning of Osborne’s much vaunted “northern powerhouse”.

If, as Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council, observes, “diversity brings with it different skills and judgements” (cited ibid.), in other words not just a numerical change, but a qualitative shift, then this line up denotes stasis: basically, we can look forward to more of the same for the foreseeable future, which means women and BAME participants, instead of being on the inside and able to put their creative energies into the work itself, will continue to have to divert time and energy battling the organisational culture to get in, before they can be fully effective and confident in any new roles. Here is justification for Jess Phillips’ dissatisfaction and anger with Labour party culture and practices.

The suggestion that ministers could make greater diversity at town halls a condition of future devolution deals, is resisted. David Simmonds, the deputy chair of the Local Government Association, “supports elements of positive action” (whatever that means), but says:

Rather than affirmative action, we must make politics more appealing and accessible (cited Rustin, ibid.).

This innocuous and evasive statement sounds sexist to me (akin to suggesting you paint a bike pink to get girls cycling). It’s as if he’s talking about children not adults, and it echoes the infantalising sentiments of the judge quoted earlier, who recommended women be patient, i.e. no change during his tenure or in his lifetime. And age is an issue: “Simmonds points out that at 39 he is 21 years younger than the average councillor, whose age has crept up to 60” (ibid.). But though so much younger than other councillors, he disappointingly refuses to step away from the patriarchy and show leadership: preferring to perpetuate opposition to making organisational and cultural changes that would effect improvement in the diversity of councillors. This bears out Proudman’s observation above about men in positions of power refusing to cede that power to others unlike themselves.

In Merseyside Momentum, one of the first things we elected to do was introduce gender parity: sharing posts between women and men, having joint secretaries and co ordinators, i.e. one woman, one man working as a team, and requiring area groups to nominate equal numbers of women and men to the main co-ordinating committee. This worked immediately to counter only men stepping forward for roles, and it has been achieved without rancour.

We have seen over the last months, how many older white Labour men (e.g. Mandelson, Kinnock, and members of the PLP and Progress group), previously influential, even powerful within the party, have reacted to Jeremy Corbyn’s unanticipated election as Labour leader on an anti Austerity, anti- neoliberal, equalities-focused ticket: they will not leave the stage, and keep reiterating aggressive words of doom and bitter hostility. They are incandescent with rage and frustration, as they flounder around in a new reality they don’t understand, and which provides them with diminished political status. The latter is probably the key to the intensity of their personal disarray.

Momentum supporters are damned as variously “hard left”, “far left”, ”hardcore”, “Trotskyite”, ”far left fellow travellers”, compared to the “moderates” of Progress, the “party’s historical mainstream”, “the centre ground” (as if, post Thatcher, that’s never shifted) and “the legitimate left, led by Neil Kinnock” (Peter Mandelson [01 01 2016] ‘A Corbyn-led Labour will divide and fall into the abyss’, The Guardian). The venom that has run through the cries of Corbyn’s Labour and media opponents from the moment he was elected leader in September 2015, is staggering:

Parliamentarians demonise those who have rallied to Jeremy Corbyn as an entryist rabble, and ask themselves what one described as “the only question: when will we get rid of him?” (Tom Clark [11 12 2015] ‘Blair’s frail legacy shows why Labour must win arguments as well as votes’, The Guardian).

And the attacks have intensified in the six months since Clark’s report was published, culminating in a leadership challenge from MP Owen Smith. (See ‘Troubling Labour: the Labour leadership contest’ [04 08 2016] and ‘Renewing Labour’s terms of reference: crisis and turmoil begat opportunity and political creativity’ [09 08 2016], both posted in ‘Commentary 2016’ category at

Recent comments by Tom Watson about a peaceful protest involving Labour members have been described as intimidation by those who participated, and were told they should be removed from the party (see Nadia Khomami & Francis Churchill [05 12 2015] ‘Deputy leader accused of intimidation’, The Guardian). This would seem to be another ‘bruiser’ in action, rather than a man taking on board feminist insights and critique regarding male dominance, authoritarian behaviour and aggression.

But the venom against Corbyn and his supporters is not just the preserve of the men in the PLP, as Jess Phillips’ conduct has shown. Women MPs, including self defining feminists, have withdrawn their support, 44 even banding together “claiming they feel intimidated within his party” (Hadley Freeman [30 07 2016], The Guardian Weekend). And Freeman goes as far as to speak of Donald Trump and “Labour’s hard left” in the same breath, as “cults of personality” that “demand devotion and prompt vilification” (ibid.). Phew.

‘Blair’s Babes’: It’s a neoliberal world. . . .
The last two years or so have been a period of intense electioneering for Labour members and supporters. It has proved instructive in relation to the issues of gender parity and all-male lists. I illustrate this here with reference to three recent situations, which throw further light on Phillips’ accusations against the Labour leader.

First, in 2014/15 the selection and election of a new local Labour MP. The rules stated that women candidates had to be included on the shortlist. After candidates had circulated their bids for our approval, including email contact and doorstep conversations, the CLP held meet-and-greet events. I disclosed to our branch sec that I thought all the women candidates were appalling and I couldn’t vote for any of them, as it would knock out better candidates who happened to be male. As a long term feminist activist, this situation shocked me. I voted for the best person for the job, who was one of the men, and he was duly elected.

Next up, in 2015, the candidates for the Labour leadership, after Ed Miliband resigned, included two members of the PLP, who were feminists prominent at the women’s Labour conference each year I had attended (2011-2014) after rejoining in 2010. The leadership campaign provided close-up media exposure of their neoliberal politics, their conformity with an Austerity-lite approach. I had to vote for the only anti-Austerity candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, an older white male with a beard, who was the only candidate not just promising more of the same.

And most recently, in August 2016, Labour members and supporters in Liverpool city region had to choose a candidate for the upcoming Metro Mayor elections in 2017. There were three candidates, all ‘white’: the current Mayor of Liverpool (a local, older male), and two younger Labour MPs, a woman and a man (local). The woman is a neoliberal politician opposed to the values and politics that got Corbyn elected last September. She is one of those working to defeat and remove Labour’s elected leader.

As I have shown through the examples presented at the start of this commentary, numbers do matter. But qualification as a candidate, whether for the leadership or deputy leadership of the party, as shadow chancellor, or as a Metro Mayor, cannot be based on gender (or ethnicity or social class) alone. If suitable women candidates are not forthcoming, as members we have to vote for who we think is the best, or the least worst in the circumstances. The serious problem of the quality and composition of these lists lies further upstream.

As a party we have failed to create a sufficiently feminist-friendly culture at all levels, national, regional and local. While much has been achieved, as Kate Green claims, the party has failed to create structures and environments in which women, BAME and working class candidates (women, men or trans) could be nurtured and supported in greater and sufficient numbers. We have also failed to shift enough Labour men away from conventional masculinities towards something more humane, less controlling, less anti-feminist. (See various posts at

But above all, the deficit is political as well as numerical: in 2016, there appear to be too few Labour women, working-class and BAME MPs whose political values chime with the new leadership and his supporters, rather than with the Tory government. The party is paying a high price for this deficit, this fracture in its historical purpose. And it means Corbyn has a smaller pool of talent and support to draw on to put together a united and effective shadow cabinet, than might reasonably have been expected: a shadow cabinet that can be an effective opposition to government Austerity politics.

Opening up political discourse: democracy and Labour.
            In sum, New Labour never showed quite the same zeal for taking on the arguments of the right as it did for smashing the unelectable left. The 1997 landslide suggested a country that was open to new arguments, but it heard too few of them (Tom Clark, 11 12 2015, ibid.). (Emphasis added.)

For example, “the principled case for social security has rusted away from lack of use” (ibid.), and has been replaced by rhetoric that stigmatises need and vulnerability, using labels (scroungers, skivers, immigrants, etc.) designed to pit people against each other. This has inflamed fear, personal hatred and contempt, rather than contributing to an adult public conversation about social, political, economic issues that locate and explain personal and social responsibility and power. Instead, a Labour woman MP declared in 2015 that the Labour party was not the party of benefits claimants, not the party of welfare. 

The New Labour mantra for the public services was ‘investment and reform’.  . . . Now, slowly yet seamlessly, ‘reform and invest’ is giving way to privatize and starve’ (Tom Clark [11 12 2015] ibid.) (Emphasis added.) (See also Tom Clark with Anthony Heath [2015] Hard Times: Inequality, Recession, Aftermath. After a decade at The Guardian, Clark was recently appointed editor of the political magazine, Prospect.)

Privatise and starve can never be the Labour way. Clark emphasises the importance of making the argument for policy, for change; the importance of explanations as part of political process and governing, if Labour is to be successful in effecting lasting change in future. This is about democratizing the Labour party and the trade unions, shifting existing power relations within and across the party, and fostering a meaningful and open conversation about the kind of society we wish to be and how we can best achieve that together.  

Of course, it is exactly the beginnings of such a process across the country, in CLPs and Momentum groups, since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader, that have provoked such a storm of protest and panic in the PLP. (See Paul Mason, ‘The sound of Blairite silence’, for a summary of the current, mind-boggling situation.

Yes, many progressive policies were pursued, but instead of being won, progressive arguments were dodged around. The truth is that New Labour failed to change anybody’s mind about much apart from itself (Clark, 11 12 2015, ibid.).

This observation perhaps bears on a tension arising out of a discrepancy between Labour MPs and party members, supporters and activists, in terms of experience, knowledge and understanding. Two examples spring to mind.

First, Heidi Alexander, when shadow secretary of state for health, held a meeting with Labour health activists from across the country. It was by all accounts rather an unsatisfactory encounter, as she sought to control the agenda and discussion. She found herself ‘outnumbered’ by longterm activists who knew an awful lot about the NHS and public health, who could have been appreciated as a significant intellectual and political resource by the new shadow minister. She has since admitted that, when she accepted the health brief, “despite having helped run a campaign to protect services at my local hospital, I knew little about the NHS”,  (Heidi Alexander [19 08 2016] ‘Why I had to leave Corbyn’s dysfunctional shadow cabinet’, The Guardian). People who had travelled long distances to attend the meeting with her in London, representing their local KONP (Keep Our NHS Public) and DONHS (Defend Our NHS) groups, reported back with dismay and astonishment that it wasn’t the sharing discussion they had hoped for, and that, to make matters worse, she didn’t seem to know what neoliberalism is!

I witnessed something similar at a Saturday COMPASS symposium on education, held in London and attended by over 300 people from across the UK. Tristram Hunt, the then new shadow minister for education was the guest speaker in the morning. Sitting in the centre of the room on a swivel chair, he was surrounded by attendees whose experience in and passion for education is deep and wide-ranging, as was evident in the first early morning session when people shared their experiences and concerns. Hunt was received politely in the circumstances, given that it was obvious to everyone that he knew very little about his education brief and, perhaps worse for those attending, seemed to be devoid of passion for the subject. Both these concerns were noted with dismay and a little incredulity during informal conversations during the rest of the day. The verdict was that he should have turned up earlier, to listen to and learn from the wealth of evidence shared in that first morning session, instead of arriving just in time for his own slot.

What Corbyn’s Labour opponents seem not to get is “the activists’ frustration at everything that didn’t change in 13 Labour years – in particular Britain’s political discourse” (Clark, 11 12 2015). (Emphasis added.) This is a process, not a quick fix, and the party is now caught in the legacy of its own New Labour history, which includes neoliberal ‘Blair’s Babes’, when what the extraordinary, expanding numbers of people joining the Labour party since Jeremy’s election, and again since the PLP’s challenge to his leadership, want is a leadership and PLP willing and capable of owning that history and challenging the current Tory government’s intensified pursuit of more of the same, only worse. This is an intellectual as well as political process, and if the intellectual and experiential resources lie outwith the PLP (in academia, business and the community, for example), then bridges must be established, alliances built, the better to engage economists, political analysts, strategists, community organisers and activists.

As Paul Mason has pointed out, compared to the 1980s, “we are at the other end of the neoliberal era, and as an economic model it is broken” (Paul Mason [16 08 2016] ‘The parallels people draw between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot are almost all false’, The Guardian).

This generation, by contrast, understands that the most revolutionary thing you can do to neoliberalism is to put a party in government that dismantles it (ibid.).

And while in the 1980s the main and overpowering event was Thatcher, “the main event of 2016 – in England and Wales at least – is that 300,000 people have joined Labour” (ibid.). That’s people (not Trots) looking for an alternative to Austerity politics, neoliberal desecration of the public sector and its values, including the privatization of the NHS, and the continuing financialisation of the economy.

In a neoliberal world, just changing the ratio of women and men will not in itself effect the fundamental political change required, not just because it’s proving a historically painfully slow process, but also because we now know that women and other political constituencies can be co-opted into existing power structures, cut loose from any commitment to disadvantaged communities in society, to deliver neoliberalism against these communities.

What is newly significant in 2016 is not women refusing to identify as feminist, but the now established phenomenon of women and feminists choosing to uncritically deliver the neoliberal project, even if they can’t name it. (See Nancy Fraser [14 10 2013] ‘How feminism became capitalism’s handmaiden and how to reclaim it’. The Guardian. See also references to Miller’s article in a subsection on ‘Feminist values, neoliberalism, austerity and solidarity’ in ‘The learning curve that is the 2015 Labour leadership contest’, posted in the ‘Essays’ category at

Increasing women’s presence as politicians, of whatever flavour, is not just about opening up the job market to women. It’s not just about women’s job opportunities and careers. It has social and political consequences for society, arising out of their politics not their gender. MP Jess Phillips seems unaware or in denial of these developments and their consequences for the PLP and its relations with the wider electorate, including the issue of Labour’s all-male lists.

A further shock to the system is the realization that all-women shortlists guarantee neither gender-aware, anti-racist feminist candidates, nor anti Austerity candidates who understand that the neoliberal project is neither woman-friendly, child-friendly, feminist or generally politically progressive. How cruel is that in 2016?

Suppressing women’s political differences in search of extra numbers of women to flaunt, is neither strategically coherent nor does it make political sense. It’s also demeaning to women: lumping us all together as women on the basis of breasts / ovaries / heels, whatever, discounts our brains / intelligence, our social and political experience, awareness and values: our diverse political identities. For example: feminist / non feminist or anti feminist; socialist / neoliberal; anti Austerity / pro Austerity or Austerity-lite; environmentally conscious / consumerist; religious / secular; anti racist, anti homophobic / heterosexist and fearful of or hostile to difference; internationalist / nationalist. . . . This glorious political diversity undermines women’s power as a single political constituency, as differences of social class, education, ethnicity, disability and sexual preference, for example, too easily harden into divisions: and all but the most privileged women are disadvantaged by that.

The urgent task now must be to start repairing the democratic and political deficit, by democratizing Labour party structures, and creating pathways and opportunities for Labour candidates (as councillors and MPs), who would not decry Nye Bevan’s founding statement and values, for example on the NHS, housing, land, education, the economy and the environment, as ‘hard left’ and ‘illegitimate Left’, etc., and as ‘unaffordable’ and ‘undesirable’. For those born into the neoliberal years, and the New Labour shadow, this may be unfamiliar territory, but it’s possible to catch up on Labour’s founding political credo by dipping into In Place of Fear (Nye Bevan, 1952, reprinted 2008). It’s not a bad place to start as we square up to the real and enduring enemies Nye identified so fiercely, and with such eloquence and humanity.

To finish with four questions:

  • What are Labour values and purposes, and can they be reconciled with neoliberalism? (See ‘”The trouble is . . . . ” Economics, economists and the Labour Left’ posted in ‘Commentary 2016’ category at
  • What are feminist values and purposes and equality and human rights issues, and can they be achieved via neoliberalism?
  • Ditto environmental protections and sustainability.
  • Will the neoliberal legacy result in the destruction of the Labour party, or is it triggering its revival and re-incarnation?

These questions open up political discourse, trigger useful conversations and functional alliances, and can help frame and clarify the nature of the political and organisational challenge facing all would-be feminist-inspired, anti racist, progressive democratic parties, not least the Labour party / Labour movement in the decisive months ahead.

See Paul Mason, ‘The sound of Blairite silence’ for a chilling update on Labour’s current internal machinations, and the wolves at the door.

val walsh / 21 08 2016







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