Corbyn's Cabinet let women down - but he can still capture their support

Jeremy Corbyn faced criticism this week for only appointing men to top Shadow Cabinet posts
Jeremy Corbyn faced criticism this week for only appointing men to top Shadow Cabinet posts

By Ellie Mae O'Hagan

The first time I appeared on Newsnight was the week before the US elections in 2012. I remember because I went to Washington the day afterwards to follow a group of Democrats seeking to get Obama re-elected.

One morning in DC I woke up to find dozens of text messages from friends in Britain asking if I was ok. Sleepy and squinting at the morning sunlight, I logged onto Twitter to see what the fuss was about. Turns out the Daily Mail had run a piece arguing that, in a paranoid act of political correctness, the BBC had only invited me on Newsnight because I was a woman. "All in the name of gender equality," it sighed.

I was cross and still tired, so I bashed out a quick response on Twitter. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but I remember recounting the grilling I'd undergone by producers to see if I could hack live TV. "I didn’t just get invited on because I have a vagina," I thundered, going into unnecessary detail, "I actually had to be good as well" The story was then repeated in both the Evening Standard and the Metro by editors who finally had a reason to gleefully publish the word 'vagina.'


So you’ll forgive me if I’m a little taken aback at these very same papers suddenly becoming rather interested in the number of women in Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet earlier this week. They've certainly come a long way from being appalled that a woman (an actual woman!) could be permitted two tiny minutes of airtime in the name of equal representation.

I share some logic with that Newsnight producer who grilled me. He wanted a woman to be represented on the programme, but not at the expense of good TV. Similarly, I'd love a female leader of the Labour Party, but not if the central things she stands for are antithetical to my political beliefs. I found the argument that I should vote for Yvette Cooper on account of her gender bizarre. Feminism is about creating structural equality for women throughout society. I think we can do much better than putting one woman in the top job and tinkering at the edges with the other stuff.

Corbyn's supporters disappointed by lack of diversity in senior posts

On the other hand I'd be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed by Corbyn's shadow cabinet appointments. Some of his supporters have argued that we shouldn’t give women jobs out of tokenism – but this neglects the fact there were women qualified in this case. Others say the problem is the machismo imperialist idea that home and foreign secretaries are more important positions than education or health. That's as maybe, but it's much more effort to go back to the beginning and completely change the terms of the debate than it is to appoint women to those jobs in the first place.

Since the cabinet was appointed I've spoken to young women who voted for Corbyn and say they felt let down. I won’t run through all of their reactions here, but there was a general sense of feeling somewhat shut out of politics. Corbyn must take those feelings seriously, and respond to them sincerely. After galvanising so many young people, he can’t allow them to be disillusioned.

Corbyn made a promising start in committing to gender equality during his leadership campaign. He now needs to recapture that by listening to women and producing credible proposals around street harassment, the pay gap, violence against women and so on. He needs to show his commitment to equality through his policies.

But Corbyn also needs to communicate with the electorate by appearing in the media with clear, confident messages about what he stands for. His cabinet is more representative than David Cameron's or Ed Miliband's. This doesn’t excuse him for excluding women from the 'four great offices of state' but it does mean the fallout would have been a lot less serious if he’d been able to explain himself properly.

You’re in frontbench politics now, Jeremy. Don’t let yourself be defined by your opponents. Communicate your values clearly to the public. And never let the tabloid press paint itself as a modern-day Simone de Beauvoir in a bid to take you down.

Ellie Mae O'Hagan is a columnist for the Guardian and works for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies; a thinktank focusing on working rights and inequality. Follow her @MissEllieMae

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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