The nation should be grateful to the ladies who launched Emily's List, a campaign that aims to put more women in Parliament. So why is it so hard not to sneer and cringe instead?
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IT SOUNDS like something for debutantes: a little black book compiled by some arbiter of manners - Emily Post, perhaps - possession of which ensures you get all the right gels at your party. And this may not be so far from the truth. Emily's List has nothing to do with Emily Post, but it did come here from America; it may not be compiled by a single arbiter, but it is drawn up by a group of self-appointed great and good women; and it is about getting the right people into your party - in this cas e, theLabour Party.

Emily's List - a fund-raising organisation currently making a concerted effort to raise its media profile - doesn't commemorate anyone called Emily; "Emily" is an acronym for Early Money Is Like Yeast. You might think that if you were going to pick an acronym, you'd want one that didn't need explaining even after you'd worked out what it stood for. But the founders of Emily appear to have been as undeterred by its obscurity as they were by its combination of prissy, Emily Postish associations with other, more cumbersome and ugly ones - early money is like yeast because it makes dough rise. Geddit?

The dough that's supposed to do the rising (even the explanation needs explaining) is the female political representative. Whether aspiring women MPs really want to be thought of as doughy is doubtful, but that aside, the effect of the name on outsiders is to induce either bewildered questions about whether it's something that appears in Tatler, or, among those who know what it is, a curling of the nostril suggestive of impending nausea.

It is utterly unreasonable to want to be sick at the thought of Emily's List, because its objectives could hardly be more estimable. There are clearly not enough women in Parliament: a group of representatives (there is no other job description) of whom only 60 out of 650 are female isn't representative of anything much at all. But the financial commitments involved in cultivating a constituency - in travelling and, as one candidate put it, "buying something on every stall at the bring and buy sale; youmustn't get a reputation for being mean" - frequently deter women from standing. Emily's List aims to combat this by getting donors to subscribe £150 apiece - which may be spread over five years - and distributing the money, in £1,000 lump sums, to candidates whom its committee identifies as deserving (11 women have benefited to date). It also has a secondary function, in which capacity it is holding a £125-a-plate dinner at the Cafe Royal on 6 February, to "honour the contributions and achievements of women and men to Labour women's politics and lives at national, international and local levels"; or, to put it less wordily, to generate a bit of publicity.

There's nothing wrong with this either, even if the awards shortlist looks dispiritingly Usual Suspectish (Margaret Beckett, Betty Boothroyd and Clare Short are up for the Woman of the Parliament; the Emily Man Award will go to Gordon Brown, Sir Gavin Laird or John Smith). And yet there remains something persistently, nigglingly toe-curling about Emily's List. The British organisers have resisted the more blatantly twee aspects of the American original - such as the sending of cakes iced in suffragettecolours to donors - but the scheme comes to Britain trailing clouds of Clintonia. It takes its desire to do good in the world deadly seriously; it is unabashed about its self-promotion because, hey, it's self-promotion in a good cause.

The American version was started in 1985 to help Democratic Party women fight for high office (an enterprise costing considerably more there than here), and mightily successful it has proved: 24,000 members raised $6.2m last year. In the 1992 elections the number of Democrat women in the House of Representatives increased from 12 to 36, most having had seed money from Emily's List. Barbara Follett, 52, the neat and petite, driven and self-possessed wife of the millionaire novelist Ken Follett, brought the scheme to Britain two years ago. Though she had fought elections as a Labour candidate in 1983 and 1987, she was best known for having put Robin Cook into autumn shades and changed Harriet Harman's hairstyle (it used to be said in the Labour Party in the late 1980s that you could tell which women had been Folletted because they all had hairstyles like Barbara). As a result, she was sometimes portrayed in the press as a rather trivial person, which annoyed her - she was given to telling interviewers stiffly that she was doing a Master's degree in economic history at the LSE - because she saw her work as a necessary, even important element in the election of Cook, Harman et al, which, to her, was a matter of burning urgency. Ken and Barbie spend a good deal of time in America, where he sells millions of books: perhaps she sometimes underestimates both the staidness and the cynicism of Britain.

Certainly the apparent inability of the women behind Emily's List to realise that their name is nauseatingly awful creates an impression of people who take themselves and their cause so seriously that they have quashed any sense of humour or even perspective they may once have had. Anyone who might be inclined to dismiss them as Humourless Feminist Whingeing Wimmin (which, in the Labour Party, and not least among the shiny-suited Trade Union tie-wearing older male members of the parliamentary Labour Party, some people certainly are) can

only have their prejudices puffed up by the Emily women's failure to have spotted the name's ridiculousness. To her credit, Barbara Follett says now that she didn't want it, and "tried to think of something around Sylvia" (as in Pankhurst). Unfortunatelyshe failed.

To an extent the objections to Emily's List are objections of tone. It sounds twee, American, worthy. "These women are so earnest," one male Labour MP told me. "They take being women very seriously. Though the women MPs are all very different - Glenda Jackson's hair is now so short she could get into the marines, Harriet Harman's an English rose - you'd know exactly how to wind them up, and it would be the same way every time. You'd catch them out being illiberal: they share a conviction that they know what's right, and - though they'd never want to admit this - that they have a right to tell other people what to do."

Teresa Gorman, who adopts rather a different tone, demonstrates that it's possible to rant about women without making everyone in earshot want to slit their wrists. She talks about the difficulties she faces in Parliament in terms of things like not being able to buy a pair of tights. This sort of irritation (minor, no doubt, to some, but major to anyone who has ever laddered a pair of tights: it is difficult to concentrate when you think you look a slut) is, she quickly makes clear, indicative of deep-seated hostility to women, of entrenched prejudice and disinclination to accommodate a new and probably threatening type of MP. You are never in doubt of Gorman's passion, and yet there is something refreshing about her; she is never pious.

It is perhaps a shame that she didn't launch her version of Emily's List first. She wanted a cross-party initiative, but Barbara Follett (who had been thinking of a similar, strictly Labour scheme for some months) rushed to get hers off the ground after she was handed a circular, emanating from Gorman's office, which proposed the setting up of a fund to help women across the political spectrum fight elections. Follett thought that if it was going to happen, Labour women should have the benefit. "I don'tthink gender supersedes values," she says.

That, however, begs a rather more substantive question about Emily's List than that of tone. If gender is not, after all, the most important criterion for access to assistance, what is? Is this a way of getting more of a certain kind of Labour MP into Parliament - more Blairite modernisers, for example?

Follett predictably denies any ulterior motives, while the Emily's List literature claims that the committee of 30 women selecting candidates for sponsorship is "drawn from the different socio-economic, ethnic, political and geographic groups which make up the Labour Party." Looking at the list of honorary advisers, you can only marvel at what a clever, chattering-classes organisation the Labour Party must be. Different ethnic groups may be represented - by Kiran Kumar, for example, who is ma rried to Harsh Kumar, one of the richest men in Britain - but there is a definite preponderance of MPs and MEPs (Margaret Beckett, Glenys Kinnock), academics and intellectuals (Anna Coote, Patricia Hewitt, Lisa Jardine, Fay Weldon), lawyers (Helena Kenne dy), businesswomen (Gail Rebuck, Carmen Callil), and the odd baroness (Blackstone, Dean). Perhaps as a result, Emily's List has received not one application from Scotland, which is unfortunate, because in 1992 Scotland sent three Labour women to Westmins ter, thesame number as in 1945.

Sheila Diplock, director of the Fawcett Society, the longest-standing organisation campaigning for more women in public life, considers that the Emily's List committee "have been very careful to distribute the money fairly." Yet there remains a sense inside the Labour Party that the scheme is elitist, partly because the money is apportioned in lump sums that benefit only a few (some of whom have already had a chance to fight an election) rather than on training schemes for the many. And as Fo llett herself acknowledges, there's "a perception that it's a London-based, middle class, fast-track organisation." She can't deny the London-based bit, but thinks the other ingredients in this view probably derive from "a too cursory glance at the list of people on the letterhead. It's a Robin Hood organisation: those names are there to attract money, and because they're already successful. The point is that they want to give other women a hand up."

It is impossible to gauge the politics of the "Emily First Eleven" from the brief biographies the List hands out to the press (and when I suggested speaking to some of them, there was a lot of I-don't-know-whether-anyone-would-be-available kerfuffle fromEmily's PR agency). But the sponsored candidates do seem to be almost ineffably worthy, to epitomise what Robert Hughes called the Culture of Complaint, in which you're no one unless you're a victim. One develops housing policies for victims of domesticviolence; another works for Age Concern; one has "personal experience of homelessness, unemployment, and caring responsibilities"; another says that by the time she was 20 she had "married, given birth, lived in a condemned slum, been deserte d by her husband and begun a life of lone parenthood."

The Eleven's only known common political cause is that they are all "pro-choice" on the abortion question - this being the only criterion apart from membership of the Labour Party on which Emily insists. Nicola Kutapan of the 300 Group, a cross-party organisation campaigning for half of all MPs to be women, says: "I understand why this should be the case in the US, where abortion clinics are firebombed, and it's an issue that unites women. Here it's more divisive - and it's not a political issue; it onl y becomes so intermittently when David Alton introduces one of his bills. Emily's stridency about it may make things difficult for women seeking to represent Scottish seats."

Follett says that at the outset she couldn't see the point of being pro-choice either, and only capitulated to pressure from other women on the committee. "I thought it was a dead issue in this country, but I've had endless trouble about it: I'm constantly getting letters. There's a huge amount of subterranean campaigning by `pro-lifers' in this country, and high levels of hostility, so I can never regret doing it." Edwina Currie, perhaps surprisingly, says that when she mooted the idea of a Tory Emily(she doesn't think a cross-party organisation would work), she "was told in no uncertain terms by a Conservative lady member that she wasn't prepared to give money that might go to candidates supporting abortion."

The Tories have raised one other substantive objection to Emily's List: £70,000 has been raised, £11,000 has been distributed; what will happen to the rest? Follett replies that the committee has been extremely cautious, that another 11 women will be sponsored in the spring, and that there are plans afoot to give smaller grants to training projects. Most public discomfort with the organisation continues to focus on its smug, rich-but-right-on atmosphere. But perhaps this objection to the tone of the thing betrays a more important unease.

In an essay in The War Of The Words, a recent book on the political correctness debate, Stuart Hall identifies a division on the left between "those who believe that politics consists of getting `our side' where `their side' used to be, and then exercising power in exactly the same way they did . . . [and] those who believe the task of politics in a post-industrial society at a post-modern moment is to unsettle permanently all the configurations of power, preventing them - right or left - from ever settling again into that unconsciousness, the `deep sleep of forgetfulness', which power so regularly induces and which seems to be a condition of its operation." He concludes that PC falls irredeemably on what he considers the wrong side of that divide. "Ithas been produced by a new political conjuncture. But it does not seem to understand the forces and ideas which have actually produced it. Instead, it tries to conduct new struggles with ancient and decrepit weapons." And this is what worries me, at least, about Emily's List. Even set against the Blairite quest for a new politics, it feels curiously, lumberingly old-fashioned. It has emerged from a radical reassessment of women's lives, but does it intend to take us anywhere different? !