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A gender balanced leadership – the least-bad option?

All credit to Harriet Harman for using her position to advance the cause of gender balance significantly within the party and who now proposes a gender-balanced leadership which has been taken up by Peter Hain’s Refounding Labour to win. The solution proposed is electing Labour’s leader and deputy on a joint ticket with a deputy (of another gender), who would be nominated as a running mate by each leadership candidate, just as in the selection of US Presidential candidates.

It’s a proposal fraught with difficulties. Some, like Rob Marchant, will argue it’s a step too far; others that it weakens accountability and extends a leader’s patronage. Perhaps it will downgrade the post (if that’s possible) and the result would be all the more tokenistic.  But, if you want to ensure we don’t have an all-male leadership, which we’d certainly like to, it could be the least bad option.

The report to last week’s NEC spelt out how the proposal could work:

It has been suggested that this could be guaranteed by insisting that whenever a leadership election took place, each leadership candidate would run on a joint ticket with their favoured deputy.

  • Each candidate for Leader should be required, during the PLP nomination period, to declare a Deputy Leader running mate of the opposite gender
  • The nominations would be for the Leadership candidate but would be made in the knowledge of the candidate’s running mate.
  • The Electoral College ballot would be between Leadership candidates only, but the Deputy Leader running mate would be declared on the ballot paper.
  • In the event that the Leader resigned or became otherwise unavailable, the Deputy would be deemed to resign as from the completion of the ballot for the new Leader and Deputy Leader.
  • In the event of a Deputy resigning or becoming otherwise unavailable while the Leader continues in office it would make sense for the Leader to have the right to name a replacement when a vacancy occurs subject to ratification at the next Annual Conference.

There are possible arguments of principle against this. For example, many would argue that the deputy leadership is a non-job anyway. Jon Cruddas tried to invent a role but when he decided it really belonged to a party chair, but both brothers Miliband saw even that as no more than a carrot win Jon’s backing. Gordon Brown frequently by-passed Harriet as deputy — First Minister Lord Mandelson was the effective deputy PM. So insisting that a male leader has a female running mate with the title ‘deputy’ may be seen as just a token gesture. But if that’s convincing, abolish the post!

Many will argue that keeping the post but abolishing elections represents a reduction in accountability — Labour’s leaders (though not, it seems, its shadow cabinet or cabinet) should be directly elected. And so they should, unless there’s a good reason not to. Which this is, perhaps.

On the other hand, some of us, even those of us who’ve been involved a few deputy-leadership election campaigns, have got fed up with proxy campaigns. Because that is what most deputy leadership contests are about, if they’re about anything at all. Take Prescott and Heffer’s challenge to Hatersley in 1988 as well as Benn’s to Healey in 1981, and Cruddas in 2007, George Brown against the Bevanites in the first battle over Clause IV and the subsequent challenges to him by Castle and Wilson. Wouldn’t it be better to fight the real battle? And if it must be a proxy battle, what’s wrong with a female candidate?

Actually, the practical arguments are more impressive. How would it work in practice. If it had been in place last year, Harriet Harman could not have stayed as deputy leader unless she had been chosen as running mate by Ed Miliband. But could she have been the impartial and effective acting leader if she had been Ed’s running mate but not his brother’s, or t’other Ed’s or Andy’s? And she couldn’t have been Diane’s.

More importantly, would she have made the same effort for Diane, to get a woman on the ballot paper, if we would have been guaranteed a woman deputy? In which case, would we face more frequent all-male contests for the leadership with this rule?

What about the other implications of allowing leadership candidates to pick their running mates. Sure they’d provide gender balance — but what about their politics? Would good candidates find it necessary to pick unappealing votes in order to buy a particular segment of the vote — like a New England liberal picking a right-wing southern democrat? And would that prevent “dream tickets” (if there ever was one), or cosy reciprocal deals between two candidates to marginalise a third? (Blair & Prescott or Kinnock & Hattersley could be seen as such attempts to exclude the Bennite Left)

However, alternative methods of guaranteeing a gender balanced leadership are arguably worse. If you don’t elect a running mate on the back of the leader, you must at least hold an election for each whenever there is a vacancy for one. It would be invidious, for example, if Harriet’s decision not to run for Leader but to stay on as Deputy meant that only men could stand for the top job. However, if the leadership contest was not all male — and since I can’t see an all-female contest happening just yet — you wouldn’t know who the valid candidates would be until after the leader was elected. Whilst AV could in theory handle simultaneous contests, you’d have to considerably lower the threshold to ensure a contest in either event. It would make for horrendous leadership campaign debates with far too many candidates.

Perhaps it would been better if we hadn’t been saddled with the idea that gender equality had to apply to men too. What’s wrong with an all female leadership? If we’d had one for 70 years like we did an all-male leadership, it might be time to ban it, but why now? Then we could just insist on a female deputy. No males. Directly elected. Nice and simple. Maybe that’s less bad. I can’t think of any other change that would better present a face of Labour that adequately represents our commitment to achieving women’s equality in every workplace.


  1. Phil C. says:

    In principle and in practice, a gender-balanced leadership has to be a good and sound idea.

    As an acceptable & least bad means to achieve this, would it be wise to have a formal rule or relaxed, informal convention which simply lays out that, where possible, the leader and deputy leader should be of different gender.
    Primacy would be with the leader; the major factor would be the choice of leader. In any future leadership election, candidates from either gender would be free to stand; in any deputy leadership election, the candidates would be all female or all male (to counterbalance the existing leader), with perhaps the option of a triggered election for deputy leader within 12 months of a new leader if necessary.

    The idea of a leader choosing their own running mate sounds a very bad idea to me, fraught with obvious and (inevitably) non-obvious difficulties.

    Being elected entirely separately ought, in theory, to give the deputy leader some kind of authority in her/his own right, if the deputy is there to be a potential counterbalance to the leader – but this is a wider or separate issue in its own right. I also think the deputy leader’s role deserves further thought since the change to allow the leader to choose & appoint the shadow cabinet.

  2. Andrea says:

    “But could she have been the impartial and effective acting leader if she had been Ed’s running mate but not his brother’s, or t’other Ed’s or Andy’s? And she couldn’t have been Diane’s.”

    she should have not been interim leader if she run in a leadership ticket.
    However there would have been a problem if she had appointed as acting leader and then decided to run as deputy to one of the candidates leaving in due course the position. Would have her early actions been effected by her decision to run later?

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