By Alex Cupples
Jeremy Corbyn has shaken UK politics in the last week. The ‘unelectable’ last minute candidate was elected as leader of the Labour party in a landslide victory. Since then, the left-wing, anti-austerity leader, who is a strong promoter of gender equality, has chosen his cabinet.
He promised his supporters a 50:50 gender balance. He delivered on this with a shadow cabinet consisting of more women than men, a first in British politics. The fact that sixteen women will be serving on the opposition’s frontbench alongside fifteen men is commendable. For comparison, just one third of David Cameron’s frontbenchers are female. Add to this the fact that many prominent women MPs, including Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, refused to serve in his cabinet, he has done a good job with the numbers.
But then how important is this achievement when the top jobs have all been appointed to men? The four great offices of state (Leader, Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary) have been appointed to white men and the other prominent positions of Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and the new elected Mayor of London Labour candidate have also been filled by men.
Of course we shouldn’t be putting women into top positions based solely on their gender rather than merit. Many Labour members voted for Jeremy Corbyn over female rivals Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall on the premise that his politics would be more beneficial to gender equality than the benefits of having a prominent female leader. However, if Corbyn wants to prove he is serious about gender equality, he is in a position where he can support women who do have a tougher time getting to the top.
There are talented female Labour MPs who deserved these opportunities. His appointment of his ally and hard-left MP John McDonnell as shadow chancellor over the deputy leadership candidate, Angela Eagle, is perhaps the biggest surprise. As a hard-left MP, McDonnell is a divisive figure. Corbyn has demonstrated his will to compromise by placing MPs who do not support his views in other shadow ministerial positions but McDonnell may prove to be too divisive in such a prominent position. Although this will please some of his left-wing supporters it does not do much for winning over wider support and Eagle would have been a better choice to have both reintroduced gender balance in the top jobs and maintained a wider level of support for Corbyn’s Labour.
I did not vote for Corbyn in the leadership election. As a Green voter in the last general election his policies are appealing to me and I joined the party with the intention of voting but changed my mind at the last minute. I believe Corbyn is the best person to lead the opposition but was deterred by the fact that I don’t have faith in his ability to win over Conservative voters by 2020. I have been lured in by his policies and style of politics but can he follow through on his promises? He delivered better than a 50:50 shadow cabinet in numbers but in real power he failed to support women in the way he promised.
Despite not voting, I still support Corbyn as leader of the opposition. He is the politician most likely to seriously confront gender inequality as well as easing the class divide and promoting anti-austerity economics. People like me have been waiting a long time for someone to come along and offer this kind of politics and it is important to stand behind him. This does not mean we shouldn’t be critical when he disappoints us. It is great that Corbyn has inspired the kind of support that has not been seen for a politician in my lifetime, but for his leadership to be a success we need to be open to criticise him when he does wrong as much as praise him for what he does right. Certain factions of his support are too quick to defend him against some accusations that he has anti-Semitic and extremist links. Many, such as Helen Lewis in the New Statesman, are defending him for not appointing women to top jobs by claiming it was an ‘unforced error’.
Corbyn is offering something new and it’s a great opportunity for the left, but blindly following his lead is not what the left is about. We wanted women in the top jobs and we didn’t get that so we are right to complain. Corbyn is still committed to bringing women into the political debate and his policies for women show real hope for gender equality, but whether this is realistic when he fails to have prominently placed women in his own party remains to be seen.