Guest post by Jessica Studdert
At the recent Fabian Change We Need event I got slightly side-tracked by a snide comment from a member of the audience, who patronisingly referred to panellist Catherine Mayer as ‘sweetheart’ as he dismissed her comments. When she half-joked that she was too shocked to retort, her fellow panellist Alastair Campbell helpfully pointed out that it probably wasn’t the first time she has been called sweetheart.
Why did I find this so offensive? It’s probably naive of me to expect more from the ultimate alpha male of the Labour Party. Certainly, the man who made the initial snipe was cut from a Labour activist mold that seems to be standard issue in many CLPs – an angry, belligerent old man railing against ‘the system’. He was there during militant, there in 1997, so he’s been around far too long to accept the musings of a mere young female who the Fabian Society happened to deem expert enough to put on a platform. And for most women, being called “sweetheart”, “darling” or “love” is part of everyday life so it shouldn’t have more impact than water does on a duck’s back.
But the reason I find such flippant sexism so galling is that the Labour Party I joined is, for me, primarily the party of equality – whether of gender, income, ethnicity, sexuality or others. We have a good story to tell about gender inclusion. Since the 1990s deliberate efforts like all-women shortlists have led to more women in the PLP than ever before. We can look across the floor at the grey-suited Tories and Lib Dems and hold our heads high on that front. More women in positions of power has had important policy implications - from investment in childcare to the current debate we’ve started about extending young girls’ access to information about contraception. We’re beginning to break out of the policy silos that so-called women’s issues can often fall into - the first female Home Secretary has put concerns that uniquely affect women to the top of her department’s agenda as never before – launching initiatives on rape, domestic violence and prostitution, that have often been sidelined.
But are we as a party yet comfortable with these moves towards equality? It seems to me that having our roots as a movement for the rights of the working man, some have a hard time accepting new realities. Many of my female friends in the party have encountered attitudes from our "brothers" that range from sexist to the downright bizarre. We have an unofficial ‘list’ of male parliamentarians who we can expect to talk to our chests, in lieu of making eye contact. One friend had the delightful experience of having her neck licked by a particular notorious MP in whilst queuing for the bar in the House. It’s no different in the local parties – another friend felt the need to wear a badge that read “Labour women make policy, not tea”. A Fawcett Society report uncovered the extent of sexist attitudes women in CLPs had to deal with. One woman standing for selection was told that the party men imagined her in her underwear when she was speaking.
It may be that we are experiencing something of a backlash against enforced all-women selections. A party and a wider labour movement that is still, in my view, far too ‘male, pale and stale’ has a long way to travel before a shift in attitudes can create a genuinely diverse and welcoming movement. In the lasting words of a previous leader – lots done, but lots still to do.