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The Independent Culture
Barbara Follett, 53, is Labour's prospective candidate for Stevenage. A research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research, she lived for many years in South Africa, returning to Britain after her first husband was assassinated in 1978. She lives with her husband Ken Follett and their five children. Ann Ward, 72, is political assistant to Barbara Follett and coordinator of Labour Women's Network and Emily's List UK. A former deputy leader of Southwark Council (1971-86), she has also worked as a press photographer. Now a widow, she has one son

BARBARA FOLLETT: I think I met Ann in 1990, when I put myself forward for selection as the prospective Parlia- mentary candidate for Dulwich. I was very keen to get it but I came in rather late. A friend of mine called Glenys Thornton, currently acting secretary of the Fabians, said to me, "Go and see Ann Ward." I said, "Why?" and she said, "She's the Queen Bee of Dulwich and what she says goes." So, with some trepidation, I went to see her.

She lives in a rather large house overlooking Peckham Rye. My first impression was of someone very formidable. She looked me up and down. I'm sure I was fairly carefully dressed, probably wearing a skirt and jumper. I remember her face very well, and her hair, and the black bow that she always wears, and her glasses. Her husband was still alive then and she used him almost like a Greek chorus - she would bounce ideas off him.

Within about 10 minutes I was thoroughly relaxed and liked her a great deal. She's done so much, and she's got a very quick mind - and I like that. She gave it to me straight, that I probably wouldn't get the selection and ultimately she was right. Tessa Jowell got it, by about two and a half votes. Tessa's an extremely good MP and if I was going to lose I was very glad to lose to a woman.

Ann was enormously helpful to me at that time and, since we've been working together, is so more and more. She doesn't mind what time of the day I phone her. Politicians spend a lot of their lives on telephones. There's a wonderful American phrase, "Work the phones": if you're going to make a move, normally there are people you've got to warn, to soften up. Ann is very good at that, better than I am. She's very good at talking to people, explaining things to them - and canvassing for me.

If we disagree, one of us will usually back down. I think it's fairly 50/50. I am very impatient and I want to do something quickly, without all the preliminaries and the path-laying. Part of me goes, "Oh, I can't be doing with all that, let's just do it." And she'll say, "You can't, you've got to wait." She generally convinces me, and she's a very good antidote to my impatience.

I'm obsessional about tidiness. I say, "Annie, I can't possibly sit here with all this." She's not naturally tidy, but she's changed out of all recognition. She shares an office with me, and I think she just knows - it's almost like there's so much chaos in my life that if I can keep this area tidy, then it will be controlled.

She's a complete survivor, an optimist; she never gives up. She picks herself up, dusts herself off and starts all over again - and I admire people like that more than I can say. There are two or three I've known: Nelson Mandela, Neil Kinnock and Ann. Even though her husband's death was a terrific blow to her, she's picked herself up and made a new life for herself.

He was a great, lovely man, and she was so good during his illness. In major crises she's wonderful. In minor crises she's awful: the teapot falls over and Ann will go, "Oh, oh!" But if the entire building fell down, she'd be completely cool about it. She can make a fuss about writing a letter, but no fuss at all about doing a huge speech that's really difficult.

In Africa I would call any woman who I thought was older than me "Mother". It's a term of respect. I really respect Ann. She does mother me in the best possible way because she teaches me things, and I still have a great deal to learn. I think the word for Ann is "redoubtable". She was deputy leader of Southwark Council in its most difficult patch. She has stood for Parliament and is one of those many women who really ought to have been an MP, but who got overlooked because they didn't get money you need to finance a campaign. But she doesn't go, "Oh, how terrible." She just does the next best thing: helping other women - and she's helping me.

I consult her on personal things. She's one of the few people I'll moan to. She'll listen when I have a little whinge, and then she'll have a bit of a whinge back to me about something. She's my best friend. I phone her up if I'm cross, or if I'm happy. We socialise often, going to the theatre, the opera, concerts. She worries about the age gap much more than I do. I tend not to think about it, but every so often I worry that she's working too hard. That's a constant "thing" between us. I've persuaded her to go to a health farm.

Working together, we have both learnt a lot from each other. She has a particular working style and I had to teach her how to fit into a modern office. I had to change her a little bit - but not much: she learnt terribly quickly. Ann taught me about political in-fighting: how to recognise your friends and your enemies. I would say that she's an idealist who's grounded in the real world, and I'm an idealist who perhaps didn't pay enough attention to reality - Ann taught me to do that.

ANN WARD: We met in the spring of 1990, in my kitchen. We were starting the selection process for a candidate for Dulwich Labour Party, and somebody had suggested she should come and introduce herself to me. She was wearing a trim, short jacket and skirt. She looked good and she was full of ideas - a very attractive personality: extrovert, lively, an easy communicator. Tessa Jowell, the candidate who ultimately won the seat, also came to see me, and it was a difficult choice. It was an extremely marginal seat and I decided to back Barbara.

Shortly afterwards, my husband Frank was diagnosed with a very serious form of cancer, and Barbara was so genuinely kind and thoughtful. I nursed him at home throughout. I've got a wonderful family, but she would sort out cleaning for me, or making sure I'd got the meal ready - practical things like that.

After Frank died (in August 1991) she asked me if I'd help run Labour Women's Network, which aims at getting more women into Parliament. Frank and I had been married for 47 years and it had been a very good marriage; his death left the most enormous gap. Barbara and three other women had set up LWN after the 1987 election, and it was run from a small office in her house in London. I used to go in two days a week to help, then gradually it became three days. In 1992 we decided to set up Emily's List as a parallel organisation, to help lower-paid women with the costs involved in putting themselves up for selection as parliamentary candidates. By this time I was working a full week.

After Dulwich, Barbara decided to try for Stevenage and asked me if I would help her through the selection process. In the beginning I was still doing LWN and Emily's List from the London office, and started to come up to Stevenage a couple of days a week, but then it got more and more. It's extremely demanding working for Barbara, partly because she's got a huge range of responsibilities.

For me, it's a totally new way of working. I was in my 60s when I started working with her and had to adapt. I've got very strong ideas - and I've been a Parliamentary candidate. I'm a decision- maker and I sometimes want to go ahead and do things without referring back, and that is a problem. I've had to discipline myself to say, "This isn't your campaign, you've got to check whether this is what Barbara actually wants to do before you jump in and do it." It's not a bed of roses, partly because we do too much.

She's also immensely important to her husband Ken in his work as a writer - book tours and so on; equally, Ken is very supportive of her. They've done fund-raising for the Labour Party, having dinners, that sort of thing, but it's not really them. They are very happy when they're in Stevenage, they fit in well and are part of the local community.

Barbara is very open to ideas and wants to talk things through, she doesn't want to jump in with both feet. Having the courage to stand back and think the issues through and listen to various sides of opinion, is very important - and rare with politicians. Many of them have a set of preconditions attached to every issue which can get in the way of solutions.

She has very strong views. She's a consensus-seeker, but not woolly. She has her own set of standards, her own basic core of beliefs which drive her, but when it comes to finding solutions to problems, that's when she wants to work consensually. We've never found it difficult to talk a problem through to the point of agreement, to the point where we both see there are two sides and I might feel one way and she might feel another. We both know where we stand.

Barbara is to the left of me. I was very bruised by the ultra-Left battles of the early 1980s. It's the only time in my life that I contemplated leaving the Labour Party, and I'm very glad that I didn't.

Because she has an art background, the Labour Party asked her if she would advise on image and personal presentation. That is used as a way to put her down - which irritates me enormously because it's not all about frivolity or glamour, it's about being seen to be somebody serious. Barbara quotes Steve Biko, whom she worked with years ago in South Africa: Steve said to her one day, criticising the way she used to dress (beads, bangles and ethnic- type clothes), that the more radical your politics the more conservative you should look, because the image gets in front of what people say and people retain visual impressions long after they forget words.

She calls me her political mother. I worry a lot: at 72, am I capable of doing what she wants me to? - and she keeps saying, "I just want your judgement." For me it's been a new life, which I needed after Frank died. I've come to a new place, which I like. I'm always busy, which I like. It's given me an enormous amount. For anybody of my age, it is enormously flattering to know that somebody of her intelligence values your advice. It's great for my ego.

I'm very fond of her as a person. I find her fun to be with. I wish she wouldn't be so hard on herself.