By Phoebe Jarvis
Image credit: Metro UK
Keir Starmer was announced yesterday as the new leader of the Labour Party. His victory comes as a surprise to few; Starmer was a favourite from the (very distant) start of this leadership race, competing against a diverse range of strong, mostly female, candidates.
Starmer polled well throughout the race, despite not scoring highly on his working-class credentials, for which all candidates were scrutinised heavily. December’s shocking electoral failure proved that the party has been losing the faith of their working-class voters; rightly so, then, that the next leader’s ability to reconnect with voters should be properly considered. You would think that the down-to-earth and outspoken nature of Jess Phillips, or an MP from the ‘forgotten towns’ of the North, such as Lisa Nandy, would have made much better choices for this role. But Phillips dropped out of the race in January, after failing to gain the backing of any party affiliates, and Nandy came third place in the final round of the vote, scoring 16% in comparison to Starmer’s 56%. Evidently, Starmer is the candidate to unite the support of MPs, members, and affiliates; crucial for the party to embark on their much-needed change of approach.
However, a man has not won this contest by merit alone; the judgements placed on second place contestant, Rebecca Long-Bailey, stank of sexism. Critics downplayed her abilities by focusing on her relationship with Corbyn, calling her a ‘puppet’, and poking into her personal life. Long-Bailey's ‘dream Friday night’ of takeaway and Netflix was branded dull; this kind of unnecessary commentary, we all know, would not be faced by male politicians. Similarly, there are men who somehow maintain their reputability as leaders when they’re known to enjoy a Friday night with a dead pig, or can’t even be certain how many children they’ve fathered.
The point here is not that these women face numerous barriers to leadership, although they do, because the party has not yet had a single female leader. The point is that a female party leader would have a much greater battle to fight to be perceived as successful right now, amidst Labour's current unpopularity. This is an ongoing problem for women in senior roles, because strong leadership qualities are still associated with typically masculine qualities, and the media find it so much easier to tear women down.
The consensus was, even in research, that women were less capable leaders; until it was disproved in 2005 by Ryan and Haslam. They realised what was really going on: that women were far more likely to be appointed to senior positions in times of poor company performance, so were automatically perceived as inferior, regardless of their abilities or results. This phenomenon is called the glass cliff; proving that women are more likely to be appointed to leadership roles in times of crisis, when the chance of failure is at its highest. This echoes throughout the private and public sector, the most obvious example being Theresa May.
Of course, May could have done a much better job, but critics too easily forget that she had stepped in to clear up David Cameron’s mess. Her final competitor was Andrea Leadsom; why had only a few male leaders offered their services? Because they knew that the coming months of Brexit negotiations would be disastrous, one way or another. Ironically, May’s position as only one of two female Prime Ministers means that her mistakes reinforced critics’ generalisations of women as incompetent leaders.
This is why, though I originally rooted for Jess Phillips and would have loved to see a woman succeed, a sigh of relief came with Starmer’s victory. A man in leadership in this difficult transition period will be left to get on with the job and criticised fairly. When poor decisions are made, internal party conflicts arise, and electoral victories are left desired, this will not be used as evidence for the inherent incapability of his sex. Hopefully, Starmer’s shadow cabinet makes room for the many strong, capable women of the Labour party. He'll be free to make the necessary difficult decisions in this period of change, so that a future female leader is afforded a fair chance at popularity and success in office.