The incredible disappearing Babes

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There was Cherie, of course. And `our very own' Mo. But what did women get out of Blackpool? A glass of Soave,

some cheese on a stick and not a lot else. So are Blair's Babes no more than a faded photo-opportunity?

There was only one event in Blackpool this week on the Government's policies on women, and it was a fringe meeting called "Ministers for Women: Question and Answer Session". Who could have resisted such an enticing sales pitch? Not me, nor 80 or so others who arrived at the Town Hall in the rain to find that the event had been sponsored by a breast cancer drug company, and that early refreshments included cheese-on-sticks and glasses of Soave.

We gathered round, nibbling and sipping, and awaited the star turn. This was Baroness Jay of Paddington, who arrived late, though only fashionably so, and successfully managed to steer clear of anything to do with cheese- on-sticks. She also tried to steer clear of me. "Do I have to see this woman from The Independent?" she demanded of her adviser. We had been scheduled for a 15-minute interview but now there would only be a few minutes on the hoof because, I was told, the Baroness had to rush out immediately afterwards for a dinner.

So we stood, just outside of the Soave zone, for just those few minutes. The Baroness was looking her usual cool and elegant self, in a navy blue trouser suit.

What, I asked her, was her agenda for women? "We are making an announcement at the end of October," she said. The air seemed to get chillier. But could she not tell us something now, because, after all, it was the Labour Party Conference, and weren't women's issues supposed to be central to New Labour?

"I have only been in my post for three weeks. I am also the Leader of the House of Lords and have many other things to do," she said. I told her I knew that. She suggested that perhaps I might want to wait to write this story until the end of October.

Tessa Jowell, another Minister for Women who also has other things to do in that she is Minister for Public Health too, interrupted and started using words such as "added value". Together, they touched on the Women's Unit, the group of 35 civil servants charged with carrying out the Government's agenda for women, and how pleased everyone was that it would be moving to the Cabinet Office and the heart of government. I thought that they might just be exhausted, given that it is the third move in two years. Not so, evidently. "Everyone is very excited," said Ms Jowell.

So far the unit had not been a great success. Its budget is pounds 565,202 for this year but, in its 18 months of existence under Labour, there have been no showy press events, no Blair photo-calls, no sign to show that it is in favour. Supporters point to contributions in child care and family- friendly policies and something called "mainstreaming", but, in fact, most stories that have appeared have been about clashes of personality and policy and hints of low morale. I mention this and compare it with the Social Exclusion Unit, which is wildly high-profile with Tony Blair seemingly on tap to zoom around Britain's sink estates at the drop of a press release.

"Why shouldn't the Women's Unit be like that?" demanded the Baroness, arching an eyebrow at me. Yes, I ask, why shouldn't it? "For the simple reason that we've only been doing this for two weeks!" she said. "All that I can say is, watch this space!" And with that, she turned, and indeed I did find myself watching the space she had occupied and wondering what on earth was going on here.

Women's groups, activists and analysts think they know, and, frankly, it is not a lot. "Blair has done all the holy grails of Old Labour like Clause Four but it is interesting that gender is a debate that hasn't got out in a public sense. It's almost like the debate that dares not speak its name," says Helen Wilkinson, of the think-tank Demos and author of Tomorrow's Women. Natasha Walter, whose book The New Feminism came out last year, came to Blackpool to see what was happening with women's issues. She, like anyone else, found one small stand, a fringe meeting, and a debate on the party's own women's machinery - not exactly high-profile. "I used to feel that women's rights were right at the centre of it all," says Ms Walter. "But where are the women's issues now? I think it's really disappointing."

I mention that I have heard that the party is terrified of something called Seventies Feminism. You remember, those women with short hair and big earrings who fought for and won quotas and equal rights legislation while eating cheese-on-sticks and drinking cheap wine. Ms Walter snorts. "But they do not need to be afraid of that. Things have moved on. A dedicated Minister for Women would make a big difference. Here, when people talk about women they tend to talk about family. Not women. Women have just been erased."

The official line is that women are not invisible really, merely temporarily unavailable. The Equal Opportunities Commission awaits a new head; the Women's Unit has just got one, in the environmental campaigner Fiona Reynolds, and she is still finding her feet. The new ministers arrived, well, as you heard, practically yesterday (end of July, in fact). But such excuses can last only so long. "Women's policy is in a state of paralysis. Women are notoriously patient, but this is a government that has shown that when it wants to do something, it acts fast. We need top-level commitment. The Labour Government vociferously claims to support women at the heart of its policies. Now they need to do something about it," says Alison Ryan, of the Fawcett Society. Another campaigner adds: "The Government just wants the whole thing to go away. Because there are now women round the table, they don't feel they need to do anything else. They think that if you get the skirts there and ask their opinions, they talk for all women. That is not policy, though."

Presentation has also been patchy. Blair's Babes may have been a good photo-opportunity, but little else has been so successful. Take the ministerial appointments. The idea of having a Minister for Women in the Cabinet was something Labour activists fought to get into the manifesto. However, the reality seemed less exciting when Tony Blair reportedly offered it to Ms Harman during a mobile telephone call, as she sped away from Downing Street having just been given the Department of Social Security.

Then someone realised that Ms Harman had to reform the Welfare State and, even in Britain's long-hours working culture, there are limits. Perhaps she might need some help with this women's thing? Cue the appointment of Joan Ruddock. The only snag was that there didn't seem to be a salary. The average woman in full-time work in Britain earns 72 per cent of what a man does, so we are used to a little low pay, but this was no pay. Nevertheless, she accepted at once.

Now we have Baroness Jay, who couldn't be more different from her predecessor. Harriet Harman, for all her bright suits, has the heart of a Seventies feminist and doesn't really care who knows it. But the Baroness is a 58- year-old life peer with a reputation for hard work, glamorous living and brilliant networking. Her father is Lord Callaghan and her 15 minutes of infamy came when her affair with journalist Carl Bernstein was immortalised by his wife Nora Ephron in the book Heartburn. "When she was appointed, someone called me up and asked me what I thought," says one women's group organiser. "The only thing I really could say was that I'd seen Heartburn." Baroness Jay, for her part, has said with a shrug that she will never be able to get Bernstein out of her obituary.

But will her achievements as Minister for Women be there as well? What will be her October agenda? She dropped some hints at the Town Hall the other night. Certainly health will be emphasised. She wants to keep building on the three Harman issues - child care, family-friendly policies and violence against women - and to find other projects to which to give "added value". A major goal, she says, is to work from the centre. She also speaks with great animation about "joined-up government". In this, her enthusiasm is mirrored by the unit's new head, Fiona Reynolds. Her goal is not only to change policies, but to change the whole culture of government to the extent, for instance, where every policy in every department would automatically be analysed in terms of a "gender impact statement". I laugh when she says this. She does not join me. Her passion is the environment, and she notes that there was a time, not too long ago, when everyone laughed at environmental impact statements, too.

But gender is not the environment. Gender has the ability to embarrass big-time. You have only to look at the role of Cherie Booth, who is more or less mute in public, to see how hyper-sensitive we all are when it comes to men and women and what they do and say. Helen Wilkinson knows this rather too well: her recent article in the New Statesman on Labour's male culture provoked an instant backlash. She doesn't seem to care, though. "You can have the rhetoric about feminisation but actually, where is it? We have Alastair Campbell saying he wants 24 hours of spin control. The whole culture is about working harder and harder. Who is out there talking about spending time with their kids? I want to see male Cabinet ministers talking about this." In fact, she wants to see them talking about lots of things. As Seventies feminists used to say quite a lot, the personal is political. "Take Gordon Brown. We all know that Gordon is a total workaholic. Coming out and talking about the costs on his personal life could be very powerful."

Well, it certainly would have livened up the fringe meeting the other night. It wasn't even much of a Q and A session, as, between the cheese- on-sticks and the buffet afterwards, there was room for only six questions. "This is the beginning of the new dialogue," said Tessa Jowell.

If so, it's going to be a pretty short conversation. But that should not be the last word. Ms Jowell also harked back to the suffragettes and their slogan: "By our deeds, not words, shall we be judged."

More patience then, I guess.