Jeremy Corbyn’s women problem: MELISSA KITE says Labour is guilty of failing to promote equality

Dressed in a smart black suit and with her sleek blonde bob framing her face, Rebecca Long-Bailey revelled in her task of kicking off Labour’s election manifesto launch on Thursday.

After a tub-thumping speech, she invited the audience in Birmingham to welcome Jeremy Corbyn as ‘our next Prime Minister’.

As the pair embraced, the Manchester-born mother-of-one asked him: ‘You all right, luvvie?’

Rebecca Long-Bailey revelled in her task of kicking off Labour’s election manifesto launch on Thursday

The question to her boss seemed a bit presumptuous, since it made Ms Long-Bailey seem far more in command of the situation.

But the truth is that the 40-year-old former solicitor who is Shadow Business Secretary and is fighting to be re-elected MP for Salford and Eccles is very much seen as Labour’s future. She is increasingly touted as the likely successor to Corbyn who will be 71 in May.

Ms Long-Bailey has been unsubtly thrust into the limelight because Labour’s high command clearly believe she is one of their few convincing female figures at a time when the party desperately needs to improve its image with women voters.

Among others from this new generation being promoted is Long-Bailey’s friend Angela Rayner, 39, the Shadow Education Secretary. 

She is seen more and more in TV and radio interviews and delivering rousing keynote speeches. Despite having been flatmates, it’s assumed both will fight it out for the leadership whenever Corbyn stands down.

Both women are considered to represent everything that Labour holds dear, as well as having personal lives that are aspirational success stories.

Among others from this new generation being promoted is Long-Bailey's friend Angela Rayner, 39, the Shadow Education Secretary

Among others from this new generation being promoted is Long-Bailey’s friend Angela Rayner, 39, the Shadow Education Secretary

However, it may be too little too late for this election.

And it does seem shocking that Labour — a party which as long ago as 2007 had as its deputy leader Harriet Harman (promoting her robust brand of equality and feminism) — is yet to elect its first woman leader.

How embarrassing it must be for the party to have watched six other parties choose women leaders: Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, Jo Swinson, Nicola Sturgeon, Caroline Lucas (the Greens), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) and Arlene Foster (DUP).

And is it really any surprise Labour has a problem attracting women voters? Its current election manifesto is hardly family-friendly.

The marriage tax allowance to be scrapped. Free schools abolished. A bigger inheritance tax that would punish family savings.

But there are deeper problems that send out even worse messages to prospective female voters.

MPs such Angela Eagle have been subjected to sexist abuse and Jewish women MPs have been targeted with vile anti-Semitic hatred.

Despite pushing the idea of diversity for decades, Labour has often been guilty of a sort of institutionalised failure to promote gender equality when it comes to its own leadership.

It is shocking that Labour — a party which as long ago as 2007 had as its deputy leader Harriet Harman (pictured) — is yet to elect its first woman leade

It is shocking that Labour — a party which as long ago as 2007 had as its deputy leader Harriet Harman (pictured) — is yet to elect its first woman leade

I have spent many thousands of hours as a political correspondent at Westminster. And I have listened for years to senior Labour women telling me how misogynistic their party can be. 

It seems that this has culminated in the current and worst period of allegations of bullying and chauvinism under Corbyn, his Momentum puppet-masters and John McDonnell, his second in command, or the man who pulls the strings, depending on your view.

Never forget that McDonnell quoted someone saying they wanted to ‘lynch’ a Tory woman minister and also once said: ‘I would like to go back to the 1980s and assassinate Margaret Thatcher.’ The ‘nasty party’ doesn’t quite cover it!

The lament of Labour’s most senior women whenever I have asked them how they rose through the ranks is the same: it can be hard dealing with the bully boys.

Tessa Jowell used to tell me horror stories about trying to keep calm as her male bosses locked horns in various shouting matches.

She would sigh when explaining the latest pointless policy row, making it clear that it was too much for any sensible woman to bear. Then, of course, there are the predators.

Once, taking a Labour minister to lunch on Budget Day, I was shocked when he leaned in close and asked me: ‘What does a woman like you do this for?’

John McDonnell quoted someone saying they wanted to 'lynch' a Tory woman minister

John McDonnell quoted someone saying they wanted to ‘lynch’ a Tory woman minister

I tried to brush it off but he persisted, saying: ‘Is it a sexual thing with you?’ He was pretty drunk.

In truth, I was occasionally propositioned by Tory and Lib Dem politicians, too, and it never really bothered me.

But I feel there was a peculiarly unsavoury tone to that encounter with that Labour minister.

He wasn’t just flirting, he was belittling me by suggesting I was not capable of being a serious player because I was a woman. That I found particularly worrying. I concluded that Labour has a unique problem with its attitude to women.

Maybe it is the backroom beer and sandwiches tradition of how policies and appointments get decided. Maybe it is the fact that so many Labour men come from the world of hard knocks and traditional industries and that makes them resist women who want to do things in a more emotionally intelligent way.

But I fear it is more than that.

Labour politicians often boast about their devotion to equality. Indeed, Corbyn himself, on becoming leader, hailed his victory as the beginning of a new style of politics — he even said it would be ‘kinder’.

He claimed: ‘I do not believe in personal abuse of any sort. There’s going to be no rudeness from me. I say to all activists, cut out the personal attacks, and especially the misogynistic abuse.’

But his actions since tell a different story. In 2016, Corbyn spoke at an event organised by the Socialist Workers Party despite it being at the centre of allegations that it covered up rape and sexual harassment. Facing Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions, and forgetting the camera was on him, Corbyn muttered from his seat: ‘Stupid woman.’

In 2016, Corbyn spoke at an event organised by the Socialist Workers Party despite it being at the centre of allegations that it covered up rape and sexual harassment

In 2016, Corbyn spoke at an event organised by the Socialist Workers Party despite it being at the centre of allegations that it covered up rape and sexual harassment

When lip-readers revealed this, he didn’t apologise — but tried to claim he said ‘stupid people’. It seems he cannot even get to square one by admitting the problem.

Most shocking was when the promising Labour MP Luciana Berger said she had suffered bullying while pregnant and was forced to deal with a gruelling no-confidence vote tabled by a cabal of constituency members a day after she challenged Corbyn over his handling of anti-Semitism.

Admirably, three Labour veterans, Harriet Harman, Dame Margaret Hodge and Dame Louise Ellman called for Ms Berger not to be hounded out.

Tony Blair described her treatment as ‘shameful’.

It was no surprise that after such an appalling experience, Ms Berger defected and is now standing as a Lib Dem.

Thankfully, there are other voices in the Labour Party who stand up against misogyny.

When I interviewed her for Spectator Life last year, Ayesha Hazarika, who was political adviser to Ed Miliband, said the Labour Party was ‘pretty sexist and chauvinistic’.

She said it was shameful that the party had not had a woman leader and pointed to the shabby way Harriet Harman had been treated by some male colleagues even though she had been acting leader twice. After Harman had done the job well enough to be commended by all sides, Hazarika said: ‘I still heard male MPs questioning her ability.’

In fact, Labour has done this to two women, allowing both Harman and Margaret Beckett to be acting or interim leaders only, as insiders put it, ‘keeping the seat warm for a man’ to take over full-time.

Hazarika thought her party had a blind spot.

‘Women can do tea, organise events, book train tickets . . . but the big-boy stuff — political logistics, strategy, high-level communications — that’s for the boys.

‘There was a group-think that power and intelligence was always in a bloke. Women were rolled out for the photo-call.’

Is it any wonder cynics believe this is what Labour is doing now, pushing Rebecca Long-Bailey into the spotlight, because it is panic-stricken about its poll ratings.

But making her the warm-up act for Corbyn is nothing more than window-dressing unless there is real change.

Last night’s Leaders Special Question Time on BBC1 — featuring Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson — was a reminder for Labour of how far it has been left behind by failing to promote women to the top.

Things certainly won’t improve while the culture of bullying within Labour goes on seemingly unchallenged by the leadership.

If women voters are to judge Jeremy Corbyn on his record, they would surely conclude that his pledge to tackle misogyny is as empty as the rest of his promises.

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