The Spectator's Notes

Charles Moore’s Notes: Why Labour keeps failing to choose a woman leader

The question of looks; Corbyn’s position on the EU; Mr Chips and Pearl Harbor; what this year’s A-level results tell us

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

Watching the very pleasant Liz Kendall on television this week, I was struck by how extraordinary it is that more than 40 years have now passed since the Conservatives selected a woman leader and still the Labour party cannot bring itself to do so. (Although, come to think of it, it took Labour 142 years to catch up with the Conservatives in selecting a Jew, so perhaps we have another century to wait.) I am not necessarily saying that Ms Kendall is the answer — she seems able, but inexperienced — but there does appear to be a serious barrier to women at the very top of the Labour party.

I suspect this is due less to old-fashioned misogyny than to the sexual politics which feature so largely in the ideology of the left. Margaret Thatcher benefited greatly from the fact that Tory MPs — the only electorate for her party’s leadership at that time — had never given the slightest thought to such questions. They had always assumed that a man would lead, but when a brave woman popped up, they were exasperated by Ted Heath and simply said, ‘Let’s give her a go.’ In the Labour party, it is so much more complicated. Who, for the party, is the right sort of woman? Should she be married or not, childless or not, heterosexual or not? Should she take a strong stand on lots of ‘women’s subjects’ — work/life balance, abortion, sexism, rape, quotas, child-care, FGM? Should she be in favour of the veil as the authentic expression of an anti-western oppressed minority, or against it because it oppresses her sex?

There is no answer to many of these questions which party members can agree on. So every woman candidate gets mired in controversy on such points, or, like Yvette Cooper, avoids them only by blandness and seeming insincerity. It is extremely hard for a woman potential Labour leader to find her voice without deeply annoying significant numbers of her brothers and sisters (especially her sisters) in the movement. The woman who drones on about women’s issues has an honoured place in the modern Labour party — look at Harriet Harman — but by doing so enters a ghetto which prevents her from becoming No. 1. Yet Mrs Thatcher’s brilliant perception that the best way for women to win the sex war was to shut up about it and get to the top is not open to Labour hopefuls in the 21st century.

There is also the question of looks. A hidden reason for Mrs Thatcher’s victory in 1975 was that lots of older Tory backbenchers fancied her. She was 49 and made the best of it without obvious strain. She was not disturbingly sexy, and she behaved with absolute propriety throughout, thus preventing any filthy old wretch from taking liberties, but she appealed to the chivalrous instincts of the knights of the shires. If today’s Labour selectorate knows the meaning of the word chivalry at all, it is only to denounce it. On the other hand, there is an understanding that no leader — especially, despite the age of equality, a woman — can look grotesque on television and win a general election.

So what are the right looks? Possibly Ms Cooper has them — there is something quite appealing about her slightly French crop and black and white dresses, especially when she is being so boring that one looks rather than listens. But she is so contrived and cautious that there is no touch of appealing vulnerability. Ms Kendall looks like a nice person, but not in a distinctive way. I sense that the right woman leader to win a general election for Labour today would conform to one of two physical types. She would either be a more lower-middle-class version of Clare Balding — reassuring, competent, well-rounded, possibly lesbian — or more provocative and sassy, like the wonderful one with a strong northern accent whose name I have forgotten who talks about money and business on BBC Breakfast. Her feminism would be of the ‘Show, don’t tell’ variety. The public would like that, but of course Labour party members, who make the selection, wouldn’t. They are still so 20th-century that they prefer a man with a dull beard.

If the man with the dull beard does win, where will Labour stand in the European Union referendum? Jeremy Corbyn, being a hard leftist, is theoretically against the EU, but eurosceptic Labour friends tell me that he is not to be relied on when the going gets tough. I expect he will adopt the conventional ‘anti-austerity’ position, which is to assail the European elites while not doing anything which might risk the loss of the subsidies they provide and the regulations they pour forth. If so, that will, on balance, be good for the ‘get out’ side. A Corbyn-led campaign for a No vote would drive lots of Tory waverers right back to David Cameron.

At the funeral last week of my much-loved godfather, Professor Evelyn Ebsworth, I met staff of The Leys, the Cambridge public school of whose governing trust Evelyn was chairman. The funeral was shortly before the 70th anniversary of VJ Day. I was interested to learn that, early in the 20th century, The Leys established close links with Japan. Several Leysians were members of the imperial cabinet which took Japan to war, and in the 1930s, the school magazine was alive with letters from some of them defending their nationalist polices, countered by others, from Old Leysian missionaries to China, complaining about Japanese atrocities. Unfortunately, this exchange of views between old chums did not calm things down. Mr Chips, created by the Old Leysian James Hilton, is supposed to be based on W.H. Balgarnie, a master at the school from 1900 to 1932, yet Pearl Harbor happened all the same. The incidence of British-educated leaders running other countries would make an interesting study. (By the way, the present kings of Bahrain and Tonga both went to The Leys.) Did it/does it help them? Did it/does it help us?

A paradox of nowadays: the fact that this year’s A-level results are worse is strong evidence that educational standards are at last getting better.


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Show comments
  • Sean Grainger

    I watched the candidates’ debates to see Corbyn; political perving I suppose. According to Evelyn Waugh’s Sword Of Honour trilogy when commando aspirants failed the course they were marked NBG return to unit. The overwhelming impression of the lot of them was NBG.

  • stag

    This is a weird article, Charles…

    • rtj1211

      No it’s not, it’s the ‘smearing him softly with my public school throng’ …..

  • Jamie McMillan

    Tories seem to go for accessories. Last time it was handbags. Next time it will be shoes.

  • Andrew McKie

    Jim Ballard, who spent his early childhood in a Japanese internment camp, went to The Leys.

  • MistyWeaveFishLosh

    Yvette Cooper as Harriet Harman, is a Female Supremacist.

    Women’s wants first and foremost, men are second class citizens.

    • Tamerlane

      Citation needed

  • explain that

    This is 2015. Women are smart now.

    • Shazza

      There isn’t a single politician of either sex in the HoC now that has the cojones that the late great Lady T had.

      • Johnnydub

        Or the brains unfortunately…

        • Freddythreepwood

          Or the political clout and the willingness to use it

  • Chris Hobson

    Lots of traditional labour voters are also “masculine” salt of the earth types the reason why they talk about Thatcher as a woman or the witch etc. They did not like being told what to do by a woman.

    • MikeF

      ‘Traditional’ Labour voters were not bothered about Margaret Thatcher being a woman. The really vicious misogyny directed against her – which we saw again when she passed from this life – came from the anti-democratic left.

    • MrsTrellis


      As those of us who actually come from the old traditional working class know, it was always very matriarchal.
      With the men out at work doing long hours and coming home exhausted, it was the women who ran everything.
      Probably why Margaret Thatcher was very popular amongst the working class not in thrall to the empty class war rhetoric of the old left, which was always far more a middle class romantic posture than a true representation of the working class. I remember vividly the contempt the trendy middle class lefty polytechnic lecturers were held in by those who saw them taking over the Labour party – funny how so many of them looked like Jeremy Corbyn.

      • Jeffrey Vernon

        You’re right. And Barbara Castle was hero-worshipped by working class voters, even after she tried to weaken the unions.

  • davidshort10

    I think you must mean Sally Bundock (not sure of the spelling) on the BBC. I do not myself find her all that appealing but she has been around a long time, ever since the early 90s when I had to wake up early to do a City shift on teletext. My impression is that she has cut down her northern accent quite strongly in that time.

    • edulike

      No he means Steph McGovern. I would vote for her because she knows what she’s talking about.

  • davidshort10

    I don’t think there is anything particularly different about the Labour Party not choosing a woman leader. Let’s face it, it’s only happened once with the Tories and you are talking about an extremely capable person with strong leadership qualities and with strong convictions. And she did it at a time when having a woman in charge of anything was seen as very odd and when there was a lot more snobbery about. However, Labour seems more interested in favouring non-white people so an Asian or African woman would stand more of a chance. Odd though that they don’t favour working class people despite the name of the party. The only candidate who is not bland and who has identifiable principles is Corbyn. The blandest is Cooper with Burnham in second place on that score. And when CM describes him as a ‘man with a dull beard’, does he mean a dull man with a beard? How can a beard be dull?

    • Callipygian

      It’s old-mannish and scruffy. No doubt it matches his politics perfectly.

  • John P Hughes

    Theresa May stands a good chance of being the second woman Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister. She has held the bed-of-nails post of the Home Office for over five years more successfully than most of her predecessors. She has been around long enough to be familiar to the electorate, and is old enough not to attract comments about her looks or family set-up. It is interesting that it is she as Home Secretary and not Philip Hammond as Foreign Secretary who seems (at last) to be tackling the Calais migrant problem (see today’s ‘Telegraph’). She also looks like someone who would be a powerful figure in European circles – one can see ‘La Dame de Fer, bis’ in a French newspaper headline if she manages to end the troubles at the ferry and Eurotunnel terminals.
    However the Home Office is also a banana-skin Department and things could go wrong for her unexpectedly. And she needs experience in another Department. How would she tackle the European renegotiations as Foreign Secretary – which is the obvious post for her to take prior to replacing David Cameron at No 10?

    • Pioneer

      I hope you are not serious.

    • post_x_it

      Sounds like one of Fraser Nelson’s puff pieces. You forgot to include the word “miracle” somewhere.

      • John P Hughes

        Who else is a serious candidate? George Osborne is not really liked by his colleagues, let alone the wider electorate, and wouldn’t connect with ordinary people. Boris Johnson would not be trusted by his colleagues though he would be popular with voters. The Parliamentary Party would be ready to back Theresa May, and she would be respected if not liked by voters. However, she could yet come a cropper over some crisis at the Home Office before 2018.

        • post_x_it

          Who knows? Cameron was almost completely unknown until he emerged as leader. The Tories are good at fostering talent beyond the current top team.

  • jennybloggs

    My favourite politician ever was Barbara Castle. Who, is the only politician whom I would stay in to watch if she was on tv. I won’t ever forget her, tiny, diminutive, facing down a hall full of angry men, in pursuit of ‘In Place of Strife’. She lost but what a fighter. Or facing down the nation’s motorists who did not wish to give up their right to booze and drive. She was cultured, beautifully dressed, had the common touch and was never boring. I saw her on a Question Time long after she had retired. She was about 90, still beautifully dressed, still up for a verbal fight, perfect deportment, didn’t miss a trick. Class. RIP Babs.

    • lakelander

      My parents ran a pub when Barbara Castle brought in the breathalyser, which just about put them out of business. A new drink was devised: The “Bloody Barbara” – a Bloody Mary without the vodka.

      • rtj1211

        Your parents approved of ‘causing death through drunken driving’ , did they?

        • Freddythreepwood

          Anybody looking for a typical example of a strawman argument need look no further.

        • lakelander

          Pathetic remark. No, their business just got hammered. Of course we needed the breathalyser you sarcastic idiot.

    • Yorkieeye

      Yes, why wasn’t she even considered when Wilson went? She was very much respected in the country.

      • John P Hughes

        Barbara Castle was indeed a first-class politician. Her career was checked by not getting on with Jim Callaghan. This was partly due to personalities; partly because Callaghan worked inside Labour in the late 1960s to undermine her ‘In Place of Strife’ White Paper even though she had Harold Wilson’s backing. She was in the 1974-76 Government; but When Wilson stepped down in 1976, Barbara Castle’s prospect of reaching the highest Cabinet levels was lost because Callaghan became PM. So she left to be Labour’s leader in the European Parliament.
        Some have written that Barbara Castle as Leader of the Opposition would have been the toughest opponent of Margaret Thatcher; but she was not a candidate (and not even in the Commons) when Callaghan vacated the Labour Leadership after the 1979 General Election. Mrs Castle doesn’t seem to have ever given an interview about whether she would have liked to take the role, or how she would have handled MT. History may conclude that she was the one Labour politician who would have been a worthy opponent of the Iron Lady.

        • Callipygian

          Nobody in Labour could be a worthy opponent of any genuine conservative. Least of all Mrs T. Good grief!

  • jeffersonian

    ‘I was struck by how extraordinary it is that more than 40 years have now passed since the Conservatives selected a woman leader and still the Labour party cannot bring itself to do so. (Although, come to think of it, it took Labour 142 years to catch up with the Conservatives in selecting a Jew, so perhaps we have another century to wait.)’

    It just shows that a party that rewards individual achievement (or used to, at least) ends up more ‘diverse’ (though I hate the ghastly term) than one thinking in classes and identities.

  • WhiteVanMan

    The sexist attacks in Kendall by Corbyn supporters are sickening,

    • post_x_it

      And by Cooper, who made such a fuss about Kendall’s not being a mother.

  • jeremy Morfey

    Any woman politician who allows herself to be ghettoised by “women’s issues” instantly writes off 49% of the electorate. Both Thatcher and Castle were prepared to ignore gender politics and use their status as party battleaxe as a political weapon. Mo Mowlam, who negotiated peace in Northern Ireland could likewise see beyond her gender. Clare Short, another feminist, was able in the end to rise beyond gender factionalism when she took on Blair over Iraq and extraordinary rendition.

    Of today’s politicians, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon actually suceeded in upstaging her very successful heavyweight bruiser predecessor. It mattered not a jot that the wee woman was half his size, and few people brought it up as an issue. The SNP also produced the young lesbian who not only unseated the Shadow Foreign Secretary out of one of the safest Labour seats in the country, but gave a barnstorming maiden speech that must have been instrumental in the Corbyn surge. Her compassion for a man having been sanctioned by Tory rule already showed that her lesbianism didn’t preclude her from showing compassion to her fellow man.

    Most of Labour’s women depress me intensely, but Stella Creasy is showing promise, and might do well as Shadow Chancellor. Liz Kendall is not a gender factionalist either, but many feel she is in the wrong party.

    • Pioneer

      Creasey is ghastly.

    • post_x_it

      “…showed that her lesbianism didn’t preclude her from showing compassion to her fellow man.”
      What kind of comment is that? Are you suggesting it’s unusal for someone to show compassion towards a person not belonging to the gender of their sexual attraction?

      • jeremy Morfey

        No, but I am suggesting that there is a generation of factional feminists who regard anything done to benefit men, even sexually, is demeaning to women and a betrayal of the sisterhood.

    • Freddythreepwood

      ‘Most of Labour’s women depress me intensely’

      They all depress me.

  • 07052015

    Thatcher was a lucky politician and took advantage of it.But without general galtieri she would have been an alsoran.

    • jennybloggs

      She was certainly very lucky. It was great luck that Reagan was US President while she was in office.

  • alabenn

    The reason why Labour has not had a woman leader is because clever upwardly mobile women gravitate to the Conservative party.
    Look to the so called Blairs Babes, a more insipid bunch it is hard to imagine, there is no woman in Labour that appears they could lead.

  • ToastieRoastie

    Could a self-proclaimed feminist ever be leader of a serious party? Far too many men and women are put off by the feminist movement since it transformed from reasonable demands for equal treatment to requesting that the state impose equality upon us.

  • Maureen Fisher

    A true feminist leader would have multi coloured dyed hair wearing jumble sale clothes and squawking “SEXIST” while jabbing her finger.

    • nicks40

      Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!

  • Maureen Fisher

    “I expect he will adopt the conventional ‘anti-austerity’ position, which
    is to assail the European elites while not doing anything which might
    risk the loss of the subsidies they provide and the regulations they
    pour forth.” And will go the same way as Syriza, hopefully.

  • pobjoy

    ‘A paradox of nowadays: the fact that this year’s A-level results are
    worse is strong evidence that educational standards are at last getting

    Those results are a means by which they improve. There’s no paradox.

  • Mike Lothian

    Labour has had 3 female Scottish leaders of the 8 elected leaders since the parliament was set up. Two of the three Scottish leaders of the conservative party are woman

  • Hegelman

    You find Kendall pleasant because there is nothing to differentiate her from a rightwing Tory. I find her condescending without the slightest intelligence or force of character to justify it. In other words, a conceited clown.

    I suggest reading one of her pathetic articles to disillusion you about Kendall.

    I say rightwing Tory because there are Tories whom I as a Labour person would far sooner vote for than for Kendall: Ken Clarke or Chris Patten, for instance.

    • Lion 3

      Jeremy Corbyn is the real deal –
      Yes We Can.

      • rtj1211

        Case unproven, as he has never held office. Question is how many will take a punt on him…..

    • Would be nice if they’d bugger off to the Labour party so you could. Everyone would be happy then!

  • John P Hughes

    Charles Moore writes about Yvette Cooper: “there is something quite appealing about her slightly French crop and black and white dresses…” CM as a fogeyish sort seems stuck in the era of Jean Seberg in ‘A Bout de Souffle’, the 1960 film, when Seberg (an American in a French film) had a cropped hairstyle that Yvette C seems to follow. This was fashionable for a short time – Sylvie Vartan had it when she started out in pop in 1961. But it was swept away by the overpowering influence of Francoise Hardy from 1962/63. The long loose hair that Francoise gave the world as a style, now back in the 21st century and seen everywhere, is adopted by Liz Kendall – who would not look out of place as a Minister in a French Government of either Left or Right. She is the ‘French’ looking leadership candidate.

  • John Smith

    Can you see the unions voting for a woman Labour Leader that may one become PM?

  • tolpuddle1

    Moore keeps quiet about why the Tories have shown not the slightest inclination to repeat their female leader experiment.

    In any case, Mrs T wasn’t a female leader: (a) because she played and beat the men at their own game, (b) because as her successor pointed out, she was a “force of nature.”

  • tolpuddle1

    Disraeli was baptised as an Anglican when aged twelve.

    If he had been a Jew, he couldn’t have entered Parliament until 1858, a quarter of a century after he actually did.

    To which religion Disraeli belonged privately is a question of debate. Both, is probably the correct question.

  • tolpuddle1

    So going to the Leys School didn’t make its Japanese pupils any less wild-eyed in their nationalism and militarism ?

    Well that is a surprise ! The British public school being the last place on earth one would find the tiniest trace of either disease.

  • Heidstaethefire

    Daft old bastard

  • Struans

    When I was at The Leys I seem to recall a photo of the then crown prince Hirohito walking around the upper quad, outside the chapel. Amongst other old Leysians are/were the Hitchens brothers – one does wonder what happened in the school chapel to make their religious views so different.

    • rtj1211

      I went to a Quaker school so I am educated about what being a Quaker is about. It doesn’t make me practice it in adulthood….

  • ArtieHarris

    “I suspect this is due less to old-fashioned misogyny”

    Charles, it has nothing to do with misogyny. Besides which, the misandry is umpteen times worse.

    The fact is that the women politicians are not as good as the men for the simple reason that not as many women seek political power. And this means that the women chosen will likely be noticeably less able than the men who are chosen.


    Because there would be much greater competition among the men for those jobs. As such, only the best of men would make it. Conversely, not many women would be competing for those jobs, and so there would be less talent to choose from.

    Indeed, the party that has the most women in high office is likely to lose – because their overall talent will be less.

    This will not have anything to do with discrimination, but everything to do with Maths and with women’s choices.