Andy Burnham’s Labour leadership campaign has its flaws, but these grasping allegations of sexism are cynical, shameful and unfounded
I dearly hope that one Andy Burnham rally was not all it took for me to become “part of the change” or whatever desperately lame slogan his supporters are now using, but today I actually find myself defending the man.
I have to take exception to the storm of manufactured outrage swirling around social media simply because Andy Burnham failed to agree – when asked on the radio – that he should effectively step aside from the leadership contest so that a woman can win.
During BBC Radio 5 Live’s Labour leadership hustings today, Andy Burnham was asked whether it would be “great” if Labour chose a female leader. And Burnham, realising that to say yes would be to effectively denigrate his own campaign, replied “When the time is right, when the right leader comes along”, clearly meaning when the future woman leader did not have to win at his own expense.
But in today’s charged and cynical atmosphere – fed at all times by the virtue signalling Twitterverse – you would think that Burnham had ordered his two female leadership opponents out of the leadership contest and back to the kitchen.
From the Guardian:
Andy Burnham has been criticised by supporters of Labour leadership rival Yvette Cooper for saying Labour should have a female leader “in time, when the time is right”.
Diana Johnson, MP for Kingston upon Hull North, who is supporting Cooper, questioned whether he was suggesting the party was not ready for a female leader.
“What on earth does Andy mean by saying he’d support a woman leader ‘When the time is right’? Is he suggesting that even now – in 2015 – the Labour party is not ready for a woman leader? After 100 years of campaigning for women’s equality are we really saying we don’t think a woman can do the top job? I think the big question to Andy is ‘If not now, then when?’
Adam Bienkov at politics.co.uk puts it even more succinctly, spinning it like this:
The time is not right for Labour to have a woman leading the party, Andy Burnham suggested today.
The Spectator does a good job of summarising the tidal wave of Twitter moralising that was unleashed by Burnham’s clumsy choice of words:
Clearly what Burnham was saying is that Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are not the right people to lead Labour at the moment. And no, that isn’t smoking gun evidence of chauvinism or sexism, it is a perfectly natural statement for Burnham to have made considering the fact that he is running against both of these formidable women.
What exactly do the Twitter outrage-mongers think that Andy Burnham is supposed to have said when asked whether it would be “great” to have a woman leader? Should he have leapt to his feat in agreement, pledging to end his leadership campaign on the spot and encouraged Jeremy Corbyn to do the same in the name of affirmative action?
To have replied that yes, now is a great time for Labour to have a woman leader, a role for which he is competing, would have been to effectively admit that the candidacies of Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are superior to his own. And while that may well be the case, one can hardly expect someone running for political office to sacrifice their own campaign on the altar of PC in this way.
The confected outrage currently roiling Twitter about Andy Burnham’s slightly awkward turn of phrase when placed on the spot says an awful lot about the modern Labour Party, and it’s shallow, virtue-signalling superficiality. Do we really think that Andy Burnham is an awful sexist, or are we just being a bit cynical and seizing on an awkward remark to bash him with the smear of sexism in order to inflict damage on a candidate we do not like?
Peel away the layers of manufactured outrage and it becomes clear that this has nothing to do with advancing true equality or removing barriers to women succeeding, and everything to do with that cynical, weaponised brand of pseudo-feminism which forms nearly the entire basis of Yvette Cooper’s leadership campaign.
But the real problem is that these careless allegations of sexism, racism and assorted other “isms” tend to linger long after their tactical usefulness in thwarting the unfortunate victim has been achieved. Perhaps a few mindless people will observe the Twitter furore about Andy Burnham’s “sexist gaffe” and decide not to vote for him based on this incident. But long after the cynical sexism accusers have gotten their way and damaged his candidacy, Andy Burnham will have to continue living with that sexism smear. And none of his work as a politician, not even Google’s “right to be forgotten” rule, will make that go away.
All of us – but particularly the virtue signalling Labour Left – need to stop and think long and hard about the tactics we are willing to countenance using against our political opponents. All of us need to ask ourselves whether seizing an opportunity to label someone “sexist” or “racist” is morally defensible, particularly when there is scant evidence to back it up, or when it fails the “common sense” test.
Even if we are totally Machiavellian and ruthless when it comes to our opponents, at the very least we should recognise and be concerned about just how easy it is for these same rhetorical weapons to one day be turned against us the moment we misspeak, stumble over our words or find ourselves backed into a logical corner, as Andy Burnham found himself today.
So frankly, the answer is No. No, it is not “time” for a woman to lead the Labour Party, just as it is not “time” for a black person, an old person, a disabled person, a ginger person, someone with generalised anxiety disorder or any other predefined identity to take one of the top jobs in British politics. Rather, it is time for the best person to lead the Labour Party, now and in the future, regardless of their sex or any other criteria.
It would be great if the best person running for the Labour leadership today was a woman. Lord knows that the Labour Party have had long enough to catch up with the Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher shattered the highest of glass ceilings in Britain. But none of the candidates have that spark of exceptionalism, and only Jeremy Corbyn – alas, a man – offers anything remotely different to the plodding centrism promised by the other three.
Andy Burnham has many flaws as a Labour leadership candidate, as well as a few genuinely good policy ideas. But even if his candidacy had no positive qualities at all, still Burnham would deserve better than being casually labelled a “sexist” by a bunch of preening, virtue-signalling keyboard warriors who think nothing of taking a real, persistent societal problem and reducing it to nothing more than a blunt weapon with which to beat people they don’t happen to care for.
You can’t expect Andy Burnham or any other politician to effectively sacrifice his own campaign by saying that someone else would be “great” as Labour Party leader on account of their gender, just as you can’t force someone to testify against themselves in a court of law. Andy Burnham was put on the spot with an awkward question and gave a slightly clumsy answer, for which he is now being unfairly raked over the coals to the detriment of any substantive discussion about his policies and ideas.
But at least a bunch of Twitter poseurs got the opportunity to flaunt their finger-wagging PC credentials. So somebody gained from the whole unedifying spectacle, even though the quality of our political discourse lost, once again.