In politics, a picture can be worth more than a thousand words. A vivid image can help define political narratives. One such image from the last parliament was the all-male government front bench at a Prime Minister’s question time. Ed Miliband rightfully exploited this, highlighting David Cameron’s perceived ‘woman problem’. The strong female presence on the Labour front bench drew a sharp contrast. However, following Labour’s recent election of three men; along with Jeremy Corbyn’s patriarchal shadow cabinet selection, one must question whether Labour is getting down from its high horse on gender equality?
Nobody predicted the Labour leadership campaign resulting in such a resounding victory for the left. What was predictable, however, was the election of yet another white, middle class, male leader. Not one of the female candidates from a strong field triumphed in the race for leader, deputy leader or London mayoral candidate.
If the democratic outcome was unfortunate, the fact that not a single woman featured as part of the conferences was careless. While many expected the politics of the 1970s to return following Corbyn’s victory, nobody expected the gender representation of the 1970s to come back with it.
In his acceptance speech, Corbyn reserved particular praise for Harriet Harman, a distinguished campaigner for equality and women’s rights. He thanked Harman for the “[equality] legislation that is being brought about by her determination”. Luckily for him, the Equality Act does not extend to the shadow cabinet. Not only do men dominate the leadership, they also shadow the four great offices of state.
Corbyn is not immune from the charge of tokenism. The talents of women in the Parliamentary Labour Party have arguably been undermined. Angela Eagle’s appointment as Shadow First Secretary of State came two hours after her appointment as Shadow Business Secretary as Corbyn’s team attempted to ‘do a Mandelson’. A talented politician, Angela Eagle will make a good de facto deputy; however, given the timing of the appointment, it is difficult to argue it is anything but tokenism.
When the reshuffle concluded, women constituted the majority of the shadow cabinet, but this was only made possible through the creation of new posts: Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration and Shadow Minister for Mental Health. The narrowness of these briefs suggest their impact will be minimal. The elevation of these junior posts was straightforward political manoeuvring. Having women in the top jobs is not an academic exercise in feminist theory, it is better for democracy and better for policy development. The last Labour government is testament to this: an increase in female influence saw the introduction of policies such as improved maternity leave.
Labour’s fervent new supporters demand Corbyn not to be judged by his appointments, but by how his policies impact women. The Labour Party has a proud history on women’s equality, but further errors of this kind will mean it remains exactly that: history. If pictures are worth a thousand words, only three are required to describe the continuity in the image of British politics – male, pale and stale.