By Cerys Howell
When I recently told a male officer of my local Labour party that I was tired of being patronised by Labour men, three men came to his defence. One of them, a former Labour MP, told me I had picked ‘the wrong target.’ Another said that he’d never been to a Tory party meeting, but things were bound to be worse at those.
You couldn’t make it up. But this is nothing new. Labour women have been putting up with institutional sexism for decades. Recently, I asked a handful of them about their experiences. I heard it all. A young woman, working for the party for almost a decade, who was sexually harassed by a Labour MP, inappropriately touched by a co-worker, told by a male staffer at party conference to ‘ask your boyfriend’ when inquiring about procedure, and systematically belittled and excluded by the campaign manager of a key campaign.
A black female councillor who has spent her career undermined in her job, excluded from black history events, sidestepped by male councillors on issues central to her portfolio, and referred to as ‘Bob Marley’s sister’ by a CLP secretary.
A women’s officer who resigned after a sexist campaign of orchestrated exclusion, withheld information, and unwarranted reprimands by an all-male band of CLP officers.
A Muslim councillor who, while seriously ill and repeatedly hospitalised during her pregnancy, had male CLP members lobbying for her resignation if she didn’t attend the next meeting.
A BAME woman CLP secretary frequently described as a ‘good girl’ by male CLP members who ended her involvement with the movement when senior trade unionists defended sexual harassment.
A female councillor stalked and harassed by a male councillor who came to her house unannounced, sent inappropriate emails, and arranged meetings with her under false pretences.
A parliamentary candidate who resigned as a CLP officer, citing gatekeeping and manipulation by the local male leadership, including infiltration of the women’s group’s WhatsApp by the male deputy leader.
These are not exceptional stories. I know hundreds of Labour women and stories of exclusion, harassment, intimidation and abuse are the norm. According to LabourToo’s 2017-18 survey, a third of Labour women have experienced sexist online abuse. 91per cent worry about taking on a public role because of it.
Black women face a particularly vile intersection of anti-black racism and misogyny. And while antisemitism corroded our Party’s reputation through the Corbyn years, it is no coincidence that it was female MPs like Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger, Louise Ellman and Margaret Hodge who took the brunt of abuse.
Labour sexism became crasser in the Corbyn era. The burgeoning of hard leftism meant a vocal contingent of Labour men barely embarrassed by their brocialist love for ‘the absolute boy’ Jeremy Corbyn, alleged rapist Julian Assange, nor an MP who called gay men ‘fudgepackers and teenage girls sexy little slags. Meanwhile, women whose politics they didn’t like, from Laura Keunssberg to Jess Phillips, were targeted with impunity.
But it doesn’t just come from the hard left. Labour sexism is ubiquitous and embedded at every level, from the macho aggression of union bullies to the smug mansplaining of woke young men. Petty but exhausting manipulations of power operate routinely from head office to CLPs. Resources are denied. Data is guarded. Constituency sexism is rife. While Tracy Brabin MP claimed sexism was behind local attempts to deselect female MPs, an ex-staffer told me she thought CLP sexism was ‘a lost cause.’
Women are constantly patronised by self-appointed experts on everything from policy to process. Male voices dominate staff meetings and local WhatsApp groups. At local level in particular, mansplaining is Labour’s lingua franca.
Women rarely speak out and it is obvious why. Apart from the usual threats – abuse, losing your job, ruining your career – there is an added constraint in the Labour party, particularly now we’ve been in opposition for a decade. Labour women want to win elections; and they certainly do not want to be blamed for losing. Talking about internal sexism often feels unhelpful, even wrong. Labour women have felt obliged – and have been pressured – to take it for the team. Worse, women do not expect to be listened to. At the height of MeToo, some Labour women, from Diane Abbott MP to activist Ava Etemadzadeh, broke their silence. Little changed.
Our excuses are wearing thin. It is not the job of women and minorities to accept discrimination in order to protect the reputation of an organisation that should know better. Neither can we continue to deny the lived experiences of those within our ranks. Justifying prejudice on our own turf by smugly comparing our record on equality to that of the Tory party is cowardly and pig-headed. Telling minorities that they are wrong, mistaken or even delusional is gaslighting.
A new leadership with professional competence and a clear mandate for reform is already showing that the Labour party can rise from the ashes of 2019. Our new shadow cabinet has plenty of formidable women, including deputy leader, shadow foreign secretary, shadow chancellor and shadow minister for the cabinet office. But internally, the gaping lack of female leadership is integral to our sexist culture. Keir Starmer has appointed white men to be general secretary, chief of staff and director of communications. With women making up only six of his first twenty head office appointments, supportive critics already talk of a ‘well-meaning but “boysy”’ culture. This must be nipped in the bud. Whereas LabourToo’s five demands, largely ignored since they were set out in 2018, must be met in full.
A revitalised, genuinely progressive Labour Party cannot be one in which women feel belittled, marginalised and unsafe. If the Starmer leadership is serious about reform, our complacency about sexism must be comprehensively jettisoned. We all want Labour to win the next election. Labour Together’s report makes soberingly clear the mountain we have to climb. But if a toxic internal culture under Corbyn was a decisive factor in the 2019 disaster, honestly facing up to Party sexism cannot be an obstacle to victory. In fact, we will be better qualified to run the country when we have put our house in order.
Cerys Howell is a writer, book hoarder, dog wrangler, junk shopper, Frasier fanatic, feminist killjoy, displaced Newportonian and Labourite. She tweets at @cezzabean