I’m a townie with country roots – my great-great grandfather was a farmer – but I can’t for the life of me see how a vegan who won’t wear leather can possibly make a good Shadow Secretary for environment, food and rural affairs.
The appointment of Kerry McCarthy is especially perturbing as it comes at a time when farming and food is not just on the political agenda, but offers so much potential to become a cornerstone of our British identity and economy. This could have been a chance to bring together town and country in a really innovative and 21st century way. Instead, it appears that town has been inflicted on country with all the sensitivity of an Islington socialist who believes he has the divine right to know best.
Couldn’t Corbyn look around the bunch of back-benchers who haven’t flounced off in a huff and found one person, just one person, better qualified for the job? I’m not being deliberately obtuse. I’m just trying to work it out. I suppose we have to conclude that as with many other things about Corbyn’s leadership, if nothing else it’s shaking up the political status quo.
If there is a counter-intuitive reasoning behind it, I can see it going like this: choose someone whose personal beliefs run entirely opposite to those of the people she will be dealing with and maybe the sparks created will ignite a whole new era in agriculture. If this was the thinking, then it is clumsily-done but commendable. After all Defra, despite the hold it has over the lives of so many people, has never been the most exciting berth in politics. Maybe this is its moment in the sun.
Who knows? The member for Bristol East may prove the doubters wrong and turn into a rural champion. Her unorthodox credentials might just be what the post needs. Let’s think now. How many of us can remember a roll-call of the previous incumbents in the job, name even one? At least her appointment has made the headlines.
Let’s see what happens over the winter. It’s forecast to be a bad one, so she had better batten down the hatches and start working on some putative Labour calculations for compensating hill farmers who lose their lambs in the blizzards. That’s the stuff that rural communities really care about. I hope she realises this when she is banging on about wool being cruel to sheep.
Let’s concentrate instead on how her appointment reveals some things about Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude towards women in general and government in particular. The posse who pass for his spin doctors keep reminding us that 50 per cent of his Shadow Cabinet overall are women. Veteran MP Angela Eagle is at Business, Heidi Alexander is at Health, and Diane Abbott is in charge of International Development.
You know what though, I’m sick of this arguing over this percentage and that percentage. In 2015, more than four decades after legislation was passed to give us equal pay and equal opportunities it beggars belief that we are still having to justify ourselves. It is equally ridiculous that over the border in Scotland, and all over Europe, women just step up to the plate and get on with running their countries without having to conduct a debate straight out of Spare Rib.
One clear fact remains. Corbyn simply didn’t want any women in the “top jobs” – Deputy Leader, Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Home Secretary. He might not like the word, but he’s the boss. It was his decision who to choose. And he retracted his female-friendly electoral stance for reasons clear to anyone who has ever had even a passing acquaintance with good old-fashioned socialist Labour. They call each other “brother” for a reason. It’s because the “sisters” are there to take notes and make the tea.
I grew up surrounded by this macho culture, ingrained in the ideology of trade unionism. A decade or so ago, when I returned to Barnsley from living in London, I thought it might have been evolved away by the decline of traditional industries, softened by the equality-for-all caress of New Labour, reinforced by a couple of generations of educated women as well-versed in political theory as any man. I was wrong, and taken completely aback by the dinosaurs I found myself dealing with. And I really do mean dinosaurs.
If you think it’s tough for women in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, you should try working in local newspapers, getting involved in local politics or attempting to keep order running community groups dominated by former miners. With some very honourable exceptions, these are the places where you will find “Labour men” as fundamentalist as they come. They have to tolerate women, but they close ranks and force us out. They call us harridans and worse. They must be looking at Jeremy Corbyn now and thinking, “good on yer lad”. And I’m looking at the lot of them and thinking, if that’s what you call a progressive Labour movement, I’m joining the Women’s Equality Party.