Comment: Mr Blair must let his `babes' change the culture of politics

They have found the House macho and hostile, the media unfriendly and the spin doctors vicious
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The Independent Culture
GOOD GIRLS get their rewards, at least that's what the Labour women MPs were promised when they first entered the House. In the imminent reshuffle, some will discover whether toeing the line has reaped riches in the form of promotion from Mr Blair. It's time some of them had a break. They've been criticised and vilified ("101 Damnations" read one headline). The answer to at least one question posted at a seminar in the House of Commons today, organised by the women's campaigning group, the Fawcett Society, appears obvious. What difference has the intake of women at Westminster made? Answer: not nearly as much as was hoped - or hyped.

On closer examination, however, a small number of the new MPs have achieved surprisingly more than they've received credit for - not least because, under authoritarian Labour, constructive dissent is best conducted discreetly.

The criticism of the new squadron of female MPs began even before basic assumptions had been questioned. Such as, however depressing, didn't equality mean they had the right to be as craven as some male MPs? A high proportion of the new intake were the daughters of Middle England, professional women, often without dependants. "They couldn't see why they were expected to act as women's equality officers," one campaigner observes, "since many hadn't experienced discrimination."

They have now. They found the House macho and hostile, the media unfriendly and the spin doctors vicious. In addition, according to Blair, it's an MP's job to do as she's told. In spite of it all, some female backbenchers have cautiously expanded their remit to include scrutinising legislation, offering policy amendments and lobbying hard (including the handful of veteran women MPs who are now ministers): activities always carried out by male MPs but now in a different style. "The premiss is that you can get anything done, so long as you don't mind who gets the praise," observes Joni Lovenduski, a professor of politics. The new intake have also spread throughout Westminster, serving on select committees and working as PPSs.

So, what does this add up to? The parliamentary Labour Party's backbench women's committee, chaired by Lorna Fitzsimons, has, for instance, worked with Dawn Primarolo (one of three female ministers out of a Treasury team of five) on the Working Family Tax Credit, making it easier (although not easy enough) for the money to go directly to the woman in a couple, benefiting children most. Lone parents in receipt of WFTC will now also be able to keep all their maintenance. Under Family Credit, they were permitted to keep only the first pounds 15. Fiona Reynolds, Oona King and others also successfully lobbied Jack Straw on the disgraceful Immigration and Asylum Bill, while Harriet Harman, the premier political phoenix, and Ruth Kelly have campaigned for paid parental leave. Ann Taylor and some of the new intake on the Modernising Committee are also - painfully slowly - working to alter the culture of the House.

The Catch-22 is that since most of this activity is invisible, it neither improves Labour women's image nor encourages the more timid MPs to exercise their own democratic muscles. It isn't just lack of nerve that inhibits. Two other factors play a part. The first is that many of the new MPs genuinely believe that women have never had it so good - so why open their mouths? They point to policies such as the National Childcare Strategy and a minimum wage, the Budget, which offered help with childcare and increased child benefit, and Blair's pledge to end child poverty: issues pushed for years by Harriet Harman and others in the House, as well as women Labour activists outside.

A second brake is the attitude of the Prime Minister. Blair is terrified of mentioning the G spot - G as in "gender", a word that, like "women", rarely passes his lips. You suspect that it's because women and gender equals Loony Left Seventies feminism and - horrors! - Old Labour. If only it was just a matter of vocabulary. Gender coyness actively promotes injustice. For example, local government is the biggest employer in the country. In a draft bill due shortly, compulsory competitive tendering will be replaced with the concept of Best Value, defined as cost, efficiency and quality. A fourth element, pushed unsuccessfully by the unions, was equality - to safeguard women's pay and conditions. Without it, how can the gap between male and female wages, the widest in the EU, even begin to narrow?

Blair pays the women's unit as much attention as he gives Ruritanian tourism; he gives the women's minister the massive extra task of reform of the Upper House; he has only four women in his Cabinet. As Harriet Harman has said, females are in office under New Labour but not in power. It's mainly young male advisers who propose policy. That isn't just undemocratic; it leads to bad government.

Examples? The national child-care strategy (short on monitoring, training and regulating); the national minimum wage (poor enforcement); family- friendly policies (vague and inexpensive, so as not to displease employee. In short, while Labour's promises for women are bright, the fear is that the detail is dangerously lacking. Ruth Kelly argues that this is only a beginning; change is incremental. But the welfare state is being reformed now - and without women centrally involved in its redesign, the result will be a badly weakened framework, to everyone's cost. (Women, for instance, knew exactly what was wrong with the Child Support Agency from the outset, said so, and were ignored. )

Labour's private polls show women as the least delirious among its fans; the female floating vote is vital for the next election. A lever is now available to the new intake: they could argue that an alliance is useful not because they are women or feminists or, even, in the name of social justice, but because they believe in The Project. Like the boss, they want to see a modern working Britain, with less child poverty and family fracture.

Collectively (dangerous word) some of Blair's battalion might push for five commitments: to equal pay (needing a much strengthened Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Act and proper policing of the minimum wage); flexibility in the workplace (job shares, paid parental leave, etc), individualising the benefits system and tight supervision of the national child-care strategy.

The Beveridge welfare state is an old jalopy; Blair seeks to replace it with a sleek family saloon. If he wants to avoid producing a rogue car then he needs to encourage his female backbenchers to find their constructive and varied voices. He told his babes that they would change the culture of politics. It's time he gave them the chance to do it - and time they showed the confidence to rise to the challenge.