Originally published in the Glasgow Guardian
The Labour Party’s first Shadow cabinet reshuffle since Jeremy Corbyn took on the leaderships was always going to attract considerable media attention. However as speculation grew that Corbyn will target rebellious shadow ministers, the reshuffle has proven controversial for more than just ideology. Blairite MP Jess Phillips has accused Corbyn of “non-violent misogyny” due to his continued failures to promote female talent within the shadow cabinet. The issue of women in the party is one that began to plague Corbyn’s leadership before his campaign team’s first celebratory pint had even been pulled. The absence of female voices at the conference announcing his shock landslide win did not go unnoticed. The trend continued as Jeremy named his first Shadow cabinet, with top positions of Shadow Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary reserved for John McDonnell, Andy Burnham and Hilary Benn. As Jeremy and many of his supporters continue to deny claims of sexism, does Jess Phillips have a point?
On the surface it seems odd to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of misogyny. The image of the modern misogynist is far removed from Corbyn’s soft spoken manner, unusual interest in manhole covers and his tendency to be photographed in socks and sandals. Corbyn’s shadow cabinet is the first majority female cabinet in Westminster history. In fact the reshuffle increased the number of women, with the Shadow cabinet now being made up of 17 women and 14 men. He often publicly speaks out on issues of women’s rights, and in many ways does seem to be a genuine ally to the feminist movement. However the top four roles, the so called great offices of state, are still occupied by men.
Considering the disparity in the power and influence afforded to different cabinet positions, a simple majority does not necessarily translate to greater power for women.
Corbyn and his team have disputed any claims of sexism in their appointments, calling the idea of the top four positions an anachronism in itself. It is easy to see where they are coming from. The idea that economics and foreign affairs are more important than hospitals and schools screams of old style masculine politics. After all, surely the average member of the public considers the health service to be of more importance to their daily life than foreign affairs? Whilst redefining the parliamentary priorities is a noble goal, and arguably a long overdue one, it is not reflected in reality. When you consider the press coverage of Shadow Cabinet activity since Corbyn’s election as leader, John McDonnell and Hilary Benn come to mind long before Heidi Alexander or Lucy Powell.
Whilst I do not believe that Jeremy Corbyn is intentionally sexist, he has fallen foul of a problem common amongst men in power. Women are consistently ignored and excluded from top jobs. This is really the crux of the issue of sexism in modern Britain. You can generate mass outrage against an act of overt misogyny at the click of a button. However the more abstract concept of the omission of women from public life is far more difficult to fight against. It is understandable that after being catapulted into a position that nobody expected him to win, Corbyn wanted to have his friend and ally John McDonnell by his side in the position of Shadow Chancellor. But this is exactly how inequality persists through generations. An old boys’ club is just as damaging when its origins lie in a trade union as it is when it stems from the halls of Eton.
I was a huge supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign. As a young socialist, nothing has surpassed the political excitement of last summer. A break in the centre right monotony of Westminster rhetoric was just what was needed in the months after the election, and Jeremy’s campaign did not disappoint. Yet a modern left wing movement cannot ignore inequality at any level. Long gone are the days of white male dominated trade unions running the left. This is a fact Corbyn and McDonnell would benefit from acknowledging. You can no longer claim to represent progressive politics whilst allowing your movement to be dominated by white men.
Intentionally or not, Corbyn has appointed female MP’s to roles traditionally considered as a woman’s domain. It may be true that the importance afforded to the post of foreign secretary is due to it being considered a traditionally masculine role. Nevertheless, if Corbyn truly wanted to be progressive, surely appointing a woman to this job would send that message more effectively than meeting his self-enforced gender quota by putting women in charge of health and education.
Despite these issues, I continue to wholeheartedly support Jeremy’s leadership. But we cannot fall into the trap of defending his actions indiscriminately, even when we agree with the general direction in which he is leading the party. With the fight for the soul of the Labour party only intensifying, we risk losing the style of nuanced considered debate which got Corbyn elected in the first place. Corbyn may not be an overt misogynist, but it is highly dangerous to ignore the entrenched sexism displayed in his leadership decisions thus far. Rather than dismissing the comments made by Jess Phillips, now is the perfect time to consider what non-violent misogyny entails and what we can all do to address it.