Cometh the hour, cometh the woman. And yet somehow, throughout its 119-year history, that hour has never quite arrived for the Labour party.
Every other major British political party – and most minor ones too – have now had female leaders. Yet Labour has picked women only as temporary caretakers, voting unerringly for men when it comes to the crunch. There is a growing consensus now that whenever Jeremy Corbyn vacates the leadership of the party, it would be best if he was succeeded by a woman. If anything, that feeling has only strengthened with the arrival of Boris Johnson, a Tory leader with a history of cheating on women and a vocabulary of insults including “girly swot” and “big girl’s blouse”. But which woman, and when?
The Labour Party meets for its annual party conference in Brighton this weekend, galvanised by the knowledge that a general election may be imminent. But awkward questions remain over its readiness to fight one. Faced with a deeply split Conservative party and a Prime Minister pursuing an extreme form of Brexit without mandate or majority, the opposition should be riding high; yet it can’t even muster a convincing poll lead. When asked who they would prefer as prime minister, the public consistently rank Corbyn behind both Boris Johnson and ‘don’t know’.
The question haunting many is whether a different leader could have stopped Labour remain voters drifting to the Liberal Democrats, or attracted some of the soft Tories now deserting Johnson, or even persuaded other remain-friendly parties to accept the idea of a Labour-led government of national unity. If it wasn’t weighed down by Corbyn’s personal baggage, from his perceived failure to tackle antisemitism in the party to his past support of senior IRA figures, could Labour make the breakthrough that has eluded them?
There’s no guarantee any future leadership race would be an all-female affair. Keir Starmer, the shadow secretary for Exiting the EU who has publicly pushed for a more pro-remain position, would be a strong contender.
But where women have risen to the top of other parties, it’s sometimes prompted voters to look at its offering afresh. When Ruth Davidson, an out and proud lesbian with an irrepressible cheer, became leader of the Scottish Tories she marked a visible break with stuffy Conservative tradition. Nicola Sturgeon’s feminist take on issues like childcare and her warmer style are credited with winning over female voters wary of the SNP’s combative former leader Alex Salmond. And if the refusal of so many MPs to serve under Corbyn has somewhat drained Labour’s talent pool, it’s also given new faces like Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner or even Laura Pidcock a fast-track into the limelight.
A formal challenge to Corbyn’s leadership still seems unlikely any time soon. Many Labour MPs are too busy fighting for their own survival against activists attempting to deselect them, or too bruised by previous failed attempts to oust him. But when the vacancy opens up, these are the women to watch.
If Jeremy Corbyn fell under the proverbial bus tomorrow, Emily Thornberry would be the senior woman to beat. The shadow foreign secretary brings experience, having transitioned seamlessly from Ed Miliband’s frontbench (from which she was sacked for tweeting a picture of a white van bedecked in Union Jacks, controversially deemed snobbish) to loyal Corbynite. Having shadowed Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, she already knows how to get under his skin. And if she’s criticised in some quarters for blowing with the prevailing political wind, the 59-year-old has arguably learned the hard way to be flexible.
Thornberry’s life has been privileged in some ways – a lawyer’s daughter from Guildford, she was a barrister before entering Parliament, and is now married to a judge – but it has been tough in others. When she was seven her father walked out on the family, and her life changed overnight. She grew up with her brother on a south London council estate, wearing hand-me-down clothes and seeing her mother struggle on welfare benefits. There remains something of the chameleon about Thornberry, with colleagues noting that even that famously plummy voice can shift registers depending on who she’s talking to. “She’s a pragmatist, a party person,” says a friend, who argues that versatility is her strength. She’s as comfortable doing a formal Radio Four interview as a chatty radio phone-in or a tub-thumping speech to party members, attracting support both from former Blairites (who see her as the most centrist candidate on offer) and young Momentum activists. But it’s this shape-shifting quality that makes some wonder what she stands for.
“She’d bring us back to the centre: she’s not a values-driven supporter of Corbyn and she will want to win. She’s a good communicator, and I’d rather have her than Angela Rayner or Rebecca Long-Bailey,” says one former Labour minister. “But I think she’s a machine politician.” If so, her recent moves may be a good indication of which way the Labour wind is blowing.
Recently she has joined Starmer, and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in openly pushing Corbyn to take a more pro-remain line. (Her Islington South and Finsbury constituency, home to some of London’s wealthiest and poorest, voted to remain, and her local membership is fiercely pro-European; one fellow London MP says Thornberry was privately “very scared about a trigger ballot”, the mechanism by which members can oust an MP they disagree with, if she wasn’t seen to fight for a second referendum). That has boosted her standing with Labour members longing for their party to come out fighting against Brexit, but caused some friction with the powerful Unite union, whose leave-sympathising leader Len McCluskey had previously been expected to back her in any future contest.
On the left, meanwhile, some worry that picking yet another privileged Londoner as leader would send the wrong message to Labour’s alienated heartlands, already being targeted hard by the Brexit Party. It’s time, they argue, that the party spoke with a northern accent.
When John McDonnell declared last September that the next Labour leader should be a woman, heads immediately swivelled towards his protege, 39-year-old Rebecca Long-Bailey. The daughter of a Salford docker, she grew up in an Irish Catholic family without much money to go round; she remembers her father constantly worrying about redundancies and the family getting into debt. At 16 she got her first job in a pawn shop, something she has said taught her “more about the struggles of life than any degree or qualification ever could.”
But she did go on to get that degree, in politics and sociology, before qualifying as a solicitor and working in the NHS. Five years ago she landed the safe Labour seat of Salford and Eccles – a leave-voting area stretching from the exclusive new waterside development at Salford Quays to deprived inner city wards – and is now visibly being groomed for higher things. Having served under McDonnell at the shadow treasury, she became shadow business secretary in 2017; earlier this year, she was the only woman on the team Labour sent to negotiate with Theresa May over her Brexit deal, a sign of Corbyn’s implicit trust. Long-Bailey is ubiquitous on broadcast media, tirelessly promoted by the pro-Corbyn website Skwawkbox, and according to a shadow cabinet colleague she has already been tested on focus groups with reportedly encouraging results. She recently stood in for Corbyn at prime minister’s questions, a gig normally handed to Emily Thornberry, suggesting her star may be rising at Thornberry’s expense.
Her main problem is a perceived lack of charisma, or broad political vision; she sticks so scrupulously to the official party line that it can be hard to discern what she herself thinks. But her supporters argue that a woman who’s a stickler for doing things by the book might come as a positive relief after a few months of Johnson wreaking constitutional chaos. “She’s really clever, really diligent, really hard-working,” says a colleague. “All the party powerbrokers like her and she’s very popular with the membership.” If Corbyn were to win the next election, but seek to hand over to a successor once Brexit is resolved, that would be her moment.
When she was growing up in Stockport, Angela Rayner would hang around friends’ houses at mealtimes, knowing there might not be anything to eat at home. As a teenager she lost friends to drug overdoses and joyriding; when she left school at 16 and pregnant, her prospects seemed bleak.
But what happened next reads as a Labour fairytale. Rayner trained as a carer, became a trade union rep, and rose through Unison’s ranks as an organiser before winning the Ashton-under-Lyne seat in 2015. Now the girl who left school with no qualifications is, at 39, shadow education secretary. She’s known for devising bold, eye-catching leftwing policies like putting VAT on private school fees to fund free school lunches for all. But unusually for an ambitious Labour politician in the current climate, she has also staunchly defended Tony Blair’s record; she credits the SureStart parenting programme he launched with teaching her to be a good mother to her three sons, and New Labour’s tax credits with putting food on the table.
Rayner could theoretically pitch herself as uniting two wings of a divided party, and has steadily built support among union members who play a key role in leadership contests. One colleague points out that as an MP for a leave-voting constituency who has long argued, like Long-Bailey, that Labour must respect the referendum result, Rayner is more in tune than some rivals with Unite leader Len McCluskey. (Rayner herself campaigned to remain but has consistently opposed a second referendum, arguing it would leave politicians looking as if they’d failed to deliver on the results of the first).
But so far, she hasn’t fleshed out her views on anything much beyond education, leaving some MPs wondering about her broader vision. “It’s like with Sajid Javid; the back story carries you only so far,” says one.
If there’s a wildcard in this contest, someone who on paper can’t get past hostile party members but could unexpectedly appeal over their heads to the voters, it’s probably Jess Phillips. Bold, fearless and funny, the 37-year-old has a knack for passionate speeches in the Commons which go viral on social media. “Mention her name and people light up; they think she’s wonderful,” says a veteran Labour MP. Some draw parallels with Rory Stewart, the rank outsider in the last Tory leadership contest whose endearingly wobbly videos with random members of the public went viral, even if he wasn’t eurosceptic enough for Tory members’ tastes.
Having never been a shadow minister, running a party would be a huge leap for Phillips, who was elected in 2015. And crucially, her outspoken criticism of Corbyn makes her a hate figure for some party members who joined to support him – although having watched them try and fail to deselect critical MPs like Neil Coyle, some moderate MPs are beginning to wonder whether the left’s grip on the party is as secure as it was.
But the teacher’s daughter from Birmingham has a life story that’s hard to paint as elitist (her brother is a recovering heroin addict, she had her first child at 22 and worked for Women’s Aid before getting elected.) She also means it when she says she’s a socialist. “She’s pretty leftwing economically – that would come across at a hustings,” says a friend. And if Rory Stewart didn’t win the Tory leadership, then he did at least briefly give his wing of the party hope. There is still a sizeable, if rather forlorn constituency of Labour voters wishing someone would do the same for them.
Photography by Getty Images and HoC/Jessica Taylor