'Old White Men?' Labour and the Question of Representation

by Eve Livingston / November 28, 2017

Photo: Rwendland

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Left-wing women have long struggled to feel fully represented in parliamentary politics. 1021 words / 4 min read

Left-wing women have long struggled to feel fully represented in parliamentary politics. Caught between socialist men wary of focusing on gender lest it divide the working classes, and women ascending to the top with an ideology even more right-wing and anti-woman than their male predecessors, socialist feminists knew what it felt like to be politically homeless long before centrists started to loudly bemoan their isolation of the last few years.

The problem with representative democracy is that it’s never very representative at all. Constituency MPs can never embody every intersection of every constituent’s identity and background, just as individual party leaders can never encapsulate every perspective, characteristic or priority of those within their parties. Inside this system there is no such thing as a perfect vehicle - but there are certainly those who stand for the greater good and those who stand only for others like themselves.

This is why old white men such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, imperfect though they may be, have mobilised feminist women just as they have the wider left. If you’re a socialist precisely for reasons of fairness and equality, then a vote for an old white man can feel more progressive than one for a woman or minority wedded to a political status quo which has inequality at its core.

It’s for this reason that the cry of ‘old white men’, usually the domain of feminists themselves, can seem cynical when deployed against candidates who might best represent the interests of left-wing women. When Richard Leonard, seen as the left, Corbyn-supporting candidate in the Scottish Labour leadership race, was elected convincingly, it didn’t take long for cries of ‘old white men’ to emerge. But did they come from feminists or BME Labour members with every right to voice their frustrations about an entrenched lack of diversity and the difficulty marginalised groups have in advancing on the left? No, they came most loudly from the likes of Mail on Sunday writer Dan Hodges and the Tory youth group Activate, best known for leaked WhatsApp conversations concerning “gassing chavs”.

The lack of diversity within politics is an urgent and major problem, and a crisis of democracy. Left-wing women and those from other marginalised groups have long known this, fighting diligently on the sidelines for better representation and diversity to little avail. But at a time when society is more preoccupied with identity than ever, and with concepts such as intersectionality increasingly in the mainstream, it’s clear that it’s not always simple. Socialist feminists, for example, have watched female Prime Ministers uphold policies which disproportionately harm women, be it through the hollowing out of the welfare state, an austerity programme resulting in the closure of women’s refuges, or ongoing abuse within detention centres like Yarl’s Wood. Anas Sarwar, Leonard’s opponent in the Scottish Labour leadership contest, is the party’s only BME Member of the Scottish Parliament, a shocking and unacceptable fact that the party must address. But he is also a multi-millionaire from the centre of the party, and was embroiled in a scandal throughout the election about the failure of his business to pay a living wage.

Cynically levelling the ‘old white man’ criticism at seemingly progressive candidates then, doesn’t achieve much beyond erasing those on the left from underrepresented groups, who had no option to vote for a candidate that represents both their interests and their identities in the first place. It’s a lazy dig at movements working hard to advance left-wing ideologies precisely for the benefit of the marginalised, but it’s also part of a wider strategy in which the centre and right try to epitomise the left as a gruff, white, middle-aged man precisely for their own political gain. The erasure of diversity within left-wing movements, operative in the construction of ‘Bernie bros’ and ‘Corbynista lad culture’, works to legitimise a criticism of the left as failing on their own terms.

As it happens, this is a criticism that is not entirely unwarranted. But to level it exclusively at individuals and their supporters exposes the real motivations behind it: a quick win rather than a commitment to interrogating structural problems in solidarity with the marginalised people these critics claim to care so much about. After all, nobody is more frustrated by a lack of diversity on the left than its diverse members and supporters themselves, who have watched politicians that do represent them be largely denigrated or convincingly beaten. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you might just be able to make it as a socialist, a woman, or a BME candidate, but never as more than one of these at once.

This is the real issue that merits analysis and action. Because for every tweet from Hodges, Activate and their like cynically decrying a lack of diversity, there is another attacking Diane Abbott. For every ‘old white man’ criticism of Corbyn there is a radio silence when it comes to the visible diversity of his shadow cabinet. And for every empty platitude about the homogeneity of Labour’s leadership at a national level, there is an erasure of the diverse left-wing activists who worked hard to elect them because they saw for the first time a socialist ideology on offer which had their interests at heart. Where diversity does flourish on the left, in other words, it’s largely white men themselves who block, dismiss or erase it, sacrificing the representation of women and minorities and leaving them once again to choose another imperfect vehicle.

Representation matters, and it is incumbent on the left to interrogate the structures which have thus far kept socialists from underrepresented groups away from power. But to suggest that there’s no desire to do so, or to only call out a lack of diversity where it occurs on the left is to use the concerns of the marginalised against the marginalised themselves for political gain only. If Corbyn was the last old white man to ever lead a socialist Labour party, many of his supporters would be grateful. Their opponents, scraping for something to oppose when their arguments against socialism itself are failing, may have more to lose.