Labour is supposedly the party that stands up for women and advances the cause of equality in politics. It’s undeniable that Labour governments have lived up to this claim sometimes, passing legislation aimed at improving rights and equality for women: the legalisation of abortion in 1967, the Equal Pay Act of 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 and the 2010 Equality Act (which also sought to eliminate disadvantages for the elderly, ethnic and other minorities). However, the party itself still has its own glass ceiling.

The Conservative party, which Labour likes to depict as reactionary, prejudiced, clique-ridden, and about as anti-feminist as possible, has managed nonetheless to produce three women leaders, each of whom became prime minister. Labour still awaits its first in either category. Admittedly only one of the three female prime ministers was any good, but that’s still a better batting average than the men: if a third of our male prime ministers had been so transformative as Mrs Thatcher, and as capable of sheer leadership, Britain might not be the basket-case it currently is. Labour also prides itself on its opposition to racism and its promotion of people of colour, but again it is the Conservative party that supplied the first person of colour to be a prime minister, Rishi Sunak. Incidentally, in 1867 it provided the first Jewish prime minister in Disraeli – although he had been converted to Christianity as a child at his father’s insistence, because Isaac Disraeli resented paying synagogue fees. Moreover, one of those most spoken of within Tory ranks as a potential leader and prime minister is Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary, who is not only a woman but also black.

Finding an obvious potential female leader, black, brown or white, in the Labour Party is not so easy as one might imagine. Much as many admire Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, she appears a factional figure. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, is likely to suffer the fate of Denis Healey, and have any leadership ambitions she might entertain sacrificed on the altar of her fiscal rules. In Healey’s case they were imposed by the International Monetary Fund: in Miss Reeves’s they are dictated by a recognition that, whether Labour likes it or not, there’s a limit to how far you can provoke the markets. Liz Truss can tell her all about that.

For all the admirable efforts politicians have made in the last century to make politics as accessible to women as it is to men, it remains stubbornly a male sport

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, earned the dislike of a substantial proportion of Labour’s backbenchers by her opposition to Jeremy Corbyn’s regime. On paper she is Labour’s foremost woman, having served in the last Labour cabinet; she also stood in the 2015 leadership election, though received just seventeen per cent of the vote and came third to Corbyn. However, a new generation of potential leaders is advancing closely behind her, and the most compelling – Wes Streeting and Nick Thomas-Symonds – are men. There are other women of quality in the shadow cabinet, notably Liz Kendall and Shabana Mahmood, who may yet have the chance to impress when and if they get into government; but even if they do, they have no great base in the party to build upon.

Is all this the party’s fault? Perhaps at the grass roots, yes, for people there choose the parliamentary candidates, and plainly they have not found women who appear obvious leaders. Thatcher was the only unequivocally successful female leader of a political party Britain has ever produced. The qualities responsible for her success are perhaps what Labour selection committees should be looking for: a clear set of beliefs; an understanding of what Rab Butler called “the art of the possible” when it came to implementing them in practical policy; an ability to persuade people to follow her; and an utter disregard for what any of her opponents thought about her programme. Labour’s women may lack those attributes, but then one can’t see too many men, including its present leader, with them either. Perhaps it matters less for men because they find it so much easier than the women to engage in the acts of aggression, duplicity and bullshitting that serve as substitutes for genuine quality: think Boris Johnson. It’s another way of saying that, for all the admirable and necessary efforts politicians of all parties have made in the last century to make politics as accessible to women as it is to men, it remains stubbornly a male sport.

Yet what remains perplexing is that this shortage of female leadership appears even more prevalent in the Labour party than in any other: even the benighted Lib Dems managed to find a female leader in Jo Swinson, though a fat lot of good that did them – she lasted just five months. But then Labour has always had an ambivalent attitude to women, even as it professed to be advancing their rights. The trade unions have done more to advance women than Labour politicians, with Frances O’Grady serving for almost a decade as General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress from 2012. This ought to have set a leadership example to the Labour Party; likewise, women such as Brenda Dean (who took over SOGAT in 1985 and was the first female union leader) and Liz Symons (who led the First Division Association from 1989, and went on to serve in the Blair administration).

It was in the time before trades unionism entered that enlightened age, however, when it was still dominated by badly dressed, tobacco-stained, charm-free brutes, that the Labour movement managed to sabotage what would have then been the most formidable achievement by a woman in British politics.

Barbara Castle, first elected as an MP in 1945, took no prisoners and was energetic, principled and, in her way, crusading. Motorists hated her for introducing the breathalyser when she was Transport Secretary in 1967, but its effect on road safety was profound and endures to this day. Harold Wilson recognised her great political abilities during the Attlee government, when she served as his Parliamentary Private Secretary. She supported his leadership campaign in 1967 and became his most trusted cabinet colleague. He promoted her, in 1968, to First Secretary of State, deputy prime minister in all but name (she remains the only woman to hold this position). Her departmental responsibilities were as Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. In that capacity she decided the time had come to bring the trade unions more within the law, and to rein in their ability to inflict unnecessary damage to an economy still struggling after the devaluation of 1967.

In the summer of 1969 she introduced a radical weapon to bring the unions under control: her white paper In Place of Strife. It split the cabinet, the parliamentary party and the party in the country; the only part of the Labour movement united by it were the unions, who loathed it. Despite Wilson himself endorsing the proposed limits on union activity, the initiative was doomed. The main agent of destruction was Jim Callaghan, who was entirely in the pocket of the unions, and deeply jealous of Mrs Castle in the way that only an inadequate man can be jealous of a female colleague whose abilities and intelligence exceed his own. He had been the Chancellor of the Exchequer who presided over the devaluation, and moved sideways to the Home Office as a consequence. Belying his “Sunny Jim” image, history has exposed Callaghan as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, ravaged by ambition.

Mrs Castle’s only fault was to be ahead of her time in confronting male intransigence and reaction. She made a point about her abilities by bringing in the Equal Pay Act before she left office. Callaghan, misogynistic to the end, sacked her from the Cabinet the day he became (thanks to his friends in the unions) prime minister in 1976, despite her great abilities. Her ghost ought still to haunt the party; and Labour’s women should treat her as the example they must follow. She should have been Britain’s first woman prime minister. Her party has yet to expunge its shame that she was not, but it should at very least try.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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