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18th November 2022

Representation still represents a problem for Labour

The lack of representation is evident on all fronts of UK political parties, but how will Labour answer in the face of substantial ethnic minority and female contenders?
Representation still represents a problem for Labour
Photo: Jessica Taylor @ Flickr

Is the current Labour Party the new ‘all-boys’ club of British politics?

Truthfully, probably not as much as their rivals. But let’s look at why, despite proclaiming to champion peoples’ power in an age of identity politics, Labour is doing even worse than the Conservative Party when it comes to diversity at the top. After all, what better way could there be of highlighting the shortcomings of Labour on diversity at the top than by ceding that the Conservatives — notoriously white and male — are doing better on this issue?

Among the Conservative candidates in the leadership contest of July 2022, five out of eight contenders were from ethnic minority backgrounds, four were women, and only two out of eight were white and male. In the last Labour leadership race, back in 2020, although four out of the six initial candidates (Angela Rayner, Lisa Nandy, Emily Thornberry, and Jess Phillips) were female, all candidates bar Nandy were white. Significantly, a white man won.

Under Conservative majority rule, we have our first Asian prime minister, who recently took the reins from the UK’s third female prime minister who premiered in a Conservative Government, as did the first and second. The race saw diversities beyond gender and ethnic background categories: Sunak takes part in active Hindu practice, Nadhim Zawahi was a former refugee, Braverman is Buddhist (yes, the same Braverman who champions the programme to send refugees from the UK to Rwanda) and Tom Tugendhat describes himself as “Jew-ish”.

Let’s be clear: this is a tokenistic way to think about equality. Margaret Thatcher, the first female British Prime Minister, was hardly on frontlines burning bra’s – she only appointed one woman to her cabinet in all eleven years of premiership. Journalist Hadley Freeman has written of her “notable lack of female-friendly policies, her utter lack of interest in childcare provision or positive action”.

40 years later, Sunak’s win, despite marking the occasion of our first Asian prime minister, is hardly a soaring victory for ethnic minorities. His soaring wealth and secluded Waugh-harking upbringing has left many of us watching dumbfounded, the interview in which Sunak claims to have no working-class mates doing nothing to ease our cynicism.

So, we concede that there is little, if any, depth to the tokenistic diversity at the top of the Conservative party. However deep or shallow, they do have that undeniable gain on the Labour Party. The party which has championed “nearly all the (UK’s) equality legislation”, has never had a non-male and non-white leader of the party. “I think society in the main has moved on but Jacob Rees-Mogg and BoJo are in a bubble laughing at women”, so said Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary, Dawn Butler, just before the 2019 election. The rumble of misogyny and xenophobia has long been attributed as implicit in the very functioning of the Conservative Party, and it still is. But, if this is the case, then what could Labour’s excuse possibly be for their lack of diversity at the top when the Conservatives this year saw a pool of candidates comprising 50 percent of those from ethnic minority backgrounds?

An insider at the Labour Party’s grassroots campaign has talked about a misogynistic attitude at the lower level in Labour toward women who seem to be ambitious about ascending the political ladder. Women are seen as engaging in social climbing — a common misogynistic trope — for taking the necessary routes to ascend in the party, which their male counterparts do not receive criticism for. This is a point much too unexplored, perhaps because it is an entirely judgement-based view, which, like other feminist plights of this kind, makes it all the more difficult to address.

It hardly seems like access is the largest issue; we saw Corbyn introduce the first shadow cabinet which had more female members than male. The issue here is really with ascension. It would also make sense that the discriminatory views associated with the Conservative Party might make way for the privilege of sheer ambition — a core value in the Conservative Party’s ideology of innovative expansion and economic growth — and thus allow a woman or somebody from an ethnic minority background to succeed, given the right resources, despite underlying prejudices. It should be clear by now that the Labour Party has a lot to answer for about the discrepancy between their ethos, ideology, and the reality of who they are allowing to play with them in their political playground.

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