Labour has long been dominated by men, a history that Harriet Harman has extensively critiqued. Despite being the party of the left, Labour has been beaten to the post by the Tories on almost all other measures of representative democracy: the Conservatives have produced three female prime ministers, the most racially diverse cabinet and also the first openly trans MP.
Of course, this has not translated into the Conservatives actually representing the marginalised in substantive terms. The prominence of women in the Conservative Party in contrast to Labour is likely the result of subconscious biases which see men as more inclined to leadership. In the Conservative context, women may feel compelled to accentuate ‘masculine’ attributes to conform to prevailing gender roles. Thatcher, for instance, played into ‘masculine’ troupes of leadership, reinforcing binary notions of gender in asserting her credibility to lead a government. On the contrary, women on the centre-left may consciously reject outdated notions of associating leadership with masculinity. While this allows them to redefine leadership on its own terms, inherent social bias pushes back on them.
In this sense Harriet Harman’s critique of Labour in comparison to the Tories seems to underline the lack of descriptive representation in the Labour Party when femininity has been both simultaneously belittled and masculinised by the Conservatives. New studies indicate a growing anger among men against women. Harman, on her X account, has highlighted a particular study conducted by the Fawcett Society which has shown a growing gender divide in attitudes among young people while a study from YouGov demonstrates how a fifth of men from 16-25 say they have a favourable view of Andrew Tate. Having strong women in politics making the argument through their very presence is vital in demonstrating leadership and reversing a growing, militant masculinity.
Thus, Harman is right when she argues for greater female representation in Labour – both to undo these previously very damaging notions about masculinity’s relationship to leadership but also in a substantive policy sense. I doubt that Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn or Keir Starmer are misogynistic, but there is something to be said for the fact that they are less likely to consider a policy’s direct impact on women. Significant legislation such as Wera Hobhouse’s voyeurism private members bill which criminalised upskirting, is unlikely to ever be thought up by a man since it is not an experience common to most men. It is important for Labour to promote women on the left, both in terms of challenging prevailing social attitudes and creating meaningful representation.