A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Ayesha Hazarika’s standup show, Tales From the Pink Bus. It told the story of how she spent years as a senior female adviser in the Labour party trying to get “in the room”: into the predominantly male meetings where the big decisions are made. She did finally make it, but as one of the only women, she found herself being the one who applied the Touche Éclat before Ed Miliband’s media appearances.
It was filled with great gags that made me laugh. But as a woman who worked as an adviser to the party after the 2010 election, I found it touching a deeper nerve.
Labour has always had a long-standing women problem. But this summer, it has burst into the open. As Labour women watched the second female Conservative prime minister take office, they’ve been left asking the uncomfortable question: could it ever happen on our side? Just last week, the party announced the three candidates contesting high-profile mayoral elections next year. All men.
There’s a popular narrative about the lack of Labour women in elected leadership positions. It runs like this: the hurdle at which women fall is when decisions go to a vote of members, whether parliamentary selections, elections to the party’s national executive committee (NEC), or electing a leader. It takes you to solutions such as all-women shortlists and reserved spots for women on the NEC. Pat on the back, job done, right?
Yes, positive discrimination is critical. Without all-women shortlists there would be far fewer Labour women in parliament. But this is a partial narrative and these solutions are insufficient. Labour’s women problem runs deeper than members not electing women or the numbers of women in elected office.
That’s because the numbers don’t tell the whole story. They don’t tell us who’s in the room when the key decisions are taken. Or which voices are taken seriously round the shadow cabinet table and which are ignored. Or who’s shaped the strategy and who’s been informed after the fact.
To me, it’s tokenistic to promise half a shadow cabinet of women if you don’t bother to invite any of them to the discussions that count or to share the key election platforms.
It’s not just a lack of women in elected office: Labour also has a problem with a lack of women in senior strategic jobs appointed by the party. The moment when I realised the whopping nature of that problem is burned in my mind.
Shortly before I left my job at the party in 2012, a number of new executive director jobs were created. When the new appointments were announced, it turned out only one was a woman (predictably, she got the “governance and services” role, not the strategy, policy or comms ones).
And there were to be only two women on an executive board of around 12.
Not a great look when just a couple of years ago, Harriet Harman as minister for women had lambasted City firms for a lack of women on boards as a result of institutionalised gender discrimination.
So, at a staff meeting to communicate the appointments, I asked what they were going to do about it. I expected an anodyne but warm response about talent pipelines, mentoring and nurturing potential.
I was shocked when the response I got basically amounted to: “We appointed the best people for the jobs.”
Well, of course. But there’s so much wrong with what was missing from that answer, I hardly know where to start.
It’s difficult to challenge these cultures without more openness about women’s experiences of working for the party. But one reason I found Ayesha’s show not just funny and poignant, but brave, is that it can be difficult for those who have experienced the sharp end of Labour’s women problem to talk about it.
When I was younger, I thought if I were to encounter gender discrimination it would be tangible, easily discernible, the kind of thing you could sum up in 140 characters and tag #everdaysexism on the end. But often, there’s a subjectivity and subtlety to workplace misogyny that makes it hard to call out.
If you’re a normal person with any element of self-doubt you can always explain away things with reference to your own weaknesses. It takes a lot of confidence to be able to connect your experience with the macro picture: a lack of women in the senior positions that count.
Moreover, talking about institutional but subtle gender discrimination doesn’t really fit with our societal narratives about success. Who wants to be the person labelled as the whingey one, the one who makes excuses, the one who’s compensating for her own lack of success? It’s taken me four years to write this column and Ayesha’s show to shame me into doing it.
Finally, I think there’s a misunderstanding that when women raise concerns about institutional gender discrimination they’re accusing male colleagues of consciously doing down women.
That’s not my experience of working for the Labour party. I worked with some wonderful and very well-intentioned men, from the very top down, who would have considered themselves fully engaged in the frontline fight for equality – gender, social or educational.
But to assume that’s enough is to misunderstand modern-day misogyny. It’s rarely about men waking up in the morning and thinking about how they can go about undermining women. More often, it’s under the radar, manifesting itself in institutions and cultures that involve people who would be horrified to think they might be helping to perpetuate, rather than tackle, societal sexism.
It’s things like not looking round the room, and asking why there’s only one woman there or appointing (very capable, but so often male) contacts to jobs rather than advertising them, or, when you do advertise, failing to do anything to encourage applications from less usual suspects.
There’s a deep irony to this. It’s the Labour party that is supposed to understand that where we end up is not just a matter of individual effort, but of context, cultures and institutions. Yet the party seems unable to apply this critical insight to itself. Not just when it comes to gender, but in relation to class and educational background too.
This has profound consequences, impossible to do justice to here. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say an ability to rectify this might be related to questions of the party’s survival. The bitter factional fighting Labour has descended into is a (hopefully temporary) distraction from the massive existential questions facing social democratic parties across the west.
I can’t see Labour finding an answer to them without a greater diversity of voices in the room.