What does Sir Keir Starmer mean for gender equality?
Illustration: Chloe Gobell

Whilst it is undeniable that a female leader of the Labour Party is long overdue, Sir Keir Starmer presents himself as being the next best thing: a self-declared feminist who wants to work “with and for women”. During the leadership race, up against two women – Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy – there were calls for him to step aside to allow for the party’s first ever female leader. However, would it have been right for the party to elect a woman as its leader as merely a token gesture, rather than letting the best politician win, regardless of gender? 

Starmer is certainly making his mark: just a glance at Prime Minister’s Questions over the past few weeks has shown that he is fearless and ready to take on the Conservatives at the next general election. He appears more actively engaged in listening and responding to the Prime Minister than former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and is more forensic in his questioning style. With a new leader comes a new approach to everything, including gender equality and he will soon begin to be tested on this, and other rising inequalities that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus.

Starmer’s extensive legal training is relevant to gender equality. As the previous Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and thus head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) from 2008-2013, he has clearly shown a commitment to improving women’s rights. In 2013, a trustee of the End Violence Against Women coalition, Liz Kelly, stated that she felt “anxious” about the future of tackling gender-based violence without Starmer as Director. This is testimony to his reputation for ensuring women are treated fairly when they courageously come forward with their experiences of sexual violence.

In 2010, however, a case that the CPS handled badly led to a woman being jailed for perverting the course of justice when she withdrew a rape allegation. Rather than exploring the potential reasons for the withdrawal and considering the emotional turmoil of coming forward with such an allegation, this woman was let down by prosecutors and not treated as the victim of a serious crime. This triggered a public statement from Keir Starmer in The Guardian, calling for a change in the approach towards women who withdraw rape allegations. Even more significantly, he ensured that in future, he would approve similar cases to avoid history repeating itself. The personal involvement of the DPP in such a case was deemed “unusual”, with few other crimes requiring confirmation from the Director. Nonetheless, this is encouraging for advocates of gender equality, as it serves as evidence of Keir Starmer helping to ensure the fair treatment of rape victims in court. 

This determination to improve the criminal the system was reflected in the high conviction rate for both rape and domestic violence cases during Starmer’s time as Director. Convictions were at an all-time high from 2012-2013, with the rate for rape prosecutions reaching 63% and domestic violence 74%. Starmer put the increase in convictions down to the changes that were introduced; better guidance was offered to prosecutors facing these cases; more training was provided on violence against women and specialists were used to discuss the cases in court. In addition, he oversaw the introduction of a ‘merit-based approach’ towards rape cases, foussing on the victim’s evidence rather than questioning the allegation based on stereotypes about rape victims and mental health issues, which have been known to impact final verdicts.

Although this new approach ensured that convictions increased despite the challenges associated with prosecuting rape, it was short-lived. The merit-based approach has, according to The Justice Gap, “been steadily erased from CPS policy” since 2013. The evidence speaks for itself: rape conviction figures reached their “lowest level in a decade” in 2019. Notably, this has been partly linked to the “the shift in how the CPS decide to prosecute rape”.

A recent BBC interview with an anonymous rape victim demonstrates how the new approach introduced under Starmer is not always adhered to. Despite the compelling evidence against her accused attacker, questions over the victim’s mental health took precedence and resulted in no conviction. Ending violence against women and prosecuting the perpetrators requires a combination of challenging preconceived judgements about victims and introducing concrete changes to the system that has failed them so far. This is something that Starmer achieved during his time as Director and is an insight into his commitment to this issue.

For all types of gender-based discrimination, the new Labour leader has shared his concerns about the lack of progress being made. A recent Guardian article highlighted that due to the coronavirus pandemic, women’s rights are being impacted disproportionately: mothers are taking on the majority of childcare whilst also being 50% more likely to lose their jobs than their male counterparts. Starmer has spoken up about the impact of the virus on women, urging that we cannot let it “turn back the clock” on gender equality. He is especially concerned about the widening of the gender pay gap, calling for a review of the Equal Pay Act. Starmer is openly supporting the Fawcett Society’s ‘Right to Know’ campaign, which promotes the idea that women should know how much their male counterpart doing the same job is earning. This would be a chance to ensure that the UK is not falling behind in the fight against equal pay and can avoid reversing the progress already made in closing the gap. 

In March this year, the government suspended the legal requirement for gender pay gap reporting this year due to the pandemic. Whilst it is undeniable that companies are facing unprecedented pressures and this was welcomed by many, it could lead to them overlooking the importance of equal pay now and in the future. Starmer is pushing for the government to “act in women’s interests” by ensuring that “any recovery plan comes with a full impact assessment that […] doesn’t exacerbate the gender pay gap”. With no sign from the government that ensuring women’s recovery will form a key part of their political agenda, the Labour Party under Starmer will play a much-needed role in ensuring that the UK continues to make progress on the issue of gender equality.

Beyond policy commitments, Starmer’s dedication to gender equality is evident from the formation of his shadow cabinet. After beating Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey to become Labour leader, he appointed both of his rivals as members of his top team. Even after sacking Long-Bailey, Starmer replaced her with another female MP, Kate Green. The number of women in his shadow cabinet is 17, alongside 15 men. This is an improvement, not only from former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, which had 11 women, but puts Starmer ahead of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose cabinet is just over one quarter women. If Starmer wins the next general election, we can, therefore, be hopeful that his cabinet would champion equal representation at the top, something that is considered by the OECD as “crucial for sound government”.

What can we make of all this? From DPP to Labour leader, Starmer has demonstrated that gender equality has, and continues to be, high on his agenda. Despite being the driving force for important progress in criminal convictions against gender-based violence, he openly recognises that the battle is not yet won and that more progress is still needed. Now as head of the Labour Party, he is an important voice for highlighting the persistent inequalities that women face, not just due to the pandemic but elsewhere, in issues around equal pay and representation. Judging at this stage, Keir Starmer appears to be a promising figure that could make waves in ensuring a more equal society for all.