Labour leadership contender Owen Smith does not have the best of records surrounding his perceptions of women. But last week he committed yet another faux pas; this time with reference to his wife.
Not a record to be proud of
Earlier this year Smith tweeted “They’ve got the perfect present for Nicola Sturgeon too”, with a picture of the ‘world’s biggest gobstopper’ attached. In July, Smith was forced to apologise after saying that he wanted to “smash Theresa May … back on her heels”. Last year he appeared to suggest Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood had only been invited on BBC Question Time because of her gender. “I think your gender helps,” he told her as they waited to start recording. Back in 2010 he compared the Liberal Democrats to a victim of domestic violence, writing: “Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”
Every time Smith was caught saying something completely out of order about women, his defence was to say that it was just ‘banter’. Instead of apologising outright regarding accusations of sexism, Smith suggested that ‘political banter’ could include a bit of sexism. And here lies the problem: sexism isn’t political banter.
Ed Balls appearing on Strictly Come Dancing can be interpreted as political banter, but telling to Sturgeon to shut up and claiming that he will put PM May back in her place makes Smith looks like an unlikeable chap who can’t understand that women can also be political leaders.
A few days ago, Smith was once again called out for his sexism after comments about how he has met his wife. He suggested that “he pulled his wife Liz” after seeing off 1,200 other men, therefore he has the right skills to be leader of the biggest European political party. This unacceptable behaviour from a top Labour politician is concerning and may actually be the expression of a much deeper problem.
Smith’s behaviour tells us a lot about the state of the Labour Party where women seem to be unable to get top positions within its hierarchy.
Out of 229 Labour MPs only 99 are women, equating to is 43%. Obviously, this is better than the rest of the British political parties. But Labour has never had a woman as elected leader – when the Conservatives have already managed to have two women Prime Ministers.
During the 2015 Labour leadership elections, the party had two women to competing for the top position, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper. But only the women were squeezed about their families. Kendall had to face disturbing questions about her choice of not having children. But more disturbing was that those attacks were coming from Cooper’s team itself, which tends to suggest that the problem is actually deeper that it first looks.
The situation isn’t better locally. In June 2016 in Glasgow Council, half of female Labour councillors have signalled that they would not seek re-election due to the “macho-style management” of the current Labour council leader, Frank McAveety. Some have complained about a “macho culture” close to what was the norm in the 1970’s to explain why they will not seek re-election.
Smith: reading from the LAD Bible
It seems that Labour has propagating a culture of ‘LAD Bible politics‘ whereby women have to put up with degrading language and archaic expectations. That is why the ‘so-called banter’ that Smith used exclusively against women is not acceptable.
But Smith’s jokes about women are merely a reflection of the LAD Bible politics that exist within the Labour Party, and among most British political parties more broadly. But Smith isn’t just a member or even an average MP. He is a potential leader. His words mean more than anyone else. When he implied that his wife was a prize that he won, he basically meant that women were nothing more than a trophy you could show to your friends.
When a male Labour politician uses such so-called jokes, he humiliates women in positions of power and says to all talented women, Labour activists and campaigners that if elected, they will have no future other than to be some sort of a ‘prize’ that the party will show-off to the rest of the world.
In a party that has a problem with sexism, Smith has displayed himself to be a terrible example of how to help women to succeed in politics. He is a product of LAD Bible politics.