Looking down on the crowded Commons benches in the new parliament, visitors in the Strangers' Gallery will be struck by the large number of women MPs sitting behind - and alongside - Tony Blair. On present trends, there will be twice the number of women MPs, possibly as many as 90, or one in four on the Labour benches. If Blair does form the next government, there will be more women ministers than ever before, and their voice will be stronger on Select Committees and in the discreet channels of power.
The swing towards women has gathered more pace in the last few days, and may well have some way to go in the scramble for seats vacated at the last minute by the old men of Westminster. Three safe constituencies have just fallen to women. Helen Jones took Warrington North, Rosemary McKenna captured Cumbernauld and Kilsyth and Yvette Cooper (who wrote for our Business section and lives with Gordon Brown's policy adviser, Ed Balls), triumphed at Pontefract and Castleford last Monday. If this former mining seat, where traditional male attitudes die very gradually, can go to a woman, there are no no-go areas left in the Labour Party.
This is what John Smith intended, until the trend was halted by an industrial tribunal ruling on sex discrimination last year. Before that, Labour compelled dozens of constituencies to choose candidates from women- only shortlists. An extra stimulus was imported from the United States by Barbara Follett, Labour's candidate in the marginal Tory seat of Stevenage. She introduced Emily's List to give financial and moral support to aspiring women, who could qualify for sponsorship of pounds 1,000 each plus training worth up to pounds 5,000. The quid pro quo was that they must sign up to Labour's programme, in particular the "pro-choice" line on abortion.
In the derisory words of one Labour stalwart, Emily's List is more a case of "Emily's Missed". In fact, the evidence is mixed. Of the original first 11 chosen after a five-month trawl, only three have been selected to fight a constituency. Joan Ryan, has taken on unwinnable Enfield North. Helen Southworth is tipped to take Warrington South on a 2.5 per cent swing to Labour, while Jacqui Smith needs a 3.5 per cent swing to oust the Conservatives in the new constituency of Redditch, just south of Birmingham. None could be classified as a safe Labour seat, despite the expenditure of at least pounds 12,000.
Concerned at the slow progress, Emily's List decided to spread the money it had raised faster and more widely. Grants were cut to pounds 500, and given to 59 women hopefuls. Of these, 25 have been selected, 10 in safe or marginal seats that they could expect to win. The scheme has now been closed because all the cash for grants - pounds 20,100 - has been spent. The grand total of spending is at least pounds 32,000 and probably rather more.
On the face of it, this is a sizeable political investment with not much to show for it. Ten times the number of Emily's List "winners" have been chosen as women candidates - either under Labour's quota schemes, or by battling their way through the selection system and winning on their own merits. But the Follett enterprise has had a wider impact, helping to lift the profile of women generally, and creating a network of like-minded political aspirants.
Unfortunately, Ms Follett's view of the success or failure of Emily's List is not shared with a wider public. The control freaks in her Stevenage office vetoed an interview - taking evident pride in saying it was the sixth such request they had refused during the campaign.
Fortunately, other Emily's candidates are less buttoned-up. Jacqui Smith, a 34-year-old comprehensive school departmental head and local councillor, went through a gruelling interview to win a place in the "first 11". She is grateful for the cash support and the training, and is confident of beating her woman Tory rival, Anthea Macintyre, in Redditch. Smith believes Emily has been a catalyst in advancing the cause of women.
"It is obvious that people have tended to select MPs who are in the image of existing MPs, and until you get a critical mass, it is difficult for the world to recognise that women can be MPs. But the big change in the party has been that, while you used to hear people saying they would like to select a good woman if only they could, there is no way anyone would say that today. We know there are so many good women coming into the selection process."
Jacqui and Anthea have more in common than they may wish to admit. Both entered politics in their teens. Both have worked for their respective leaders: Jacqui did Tony Blair's photocopying while working for an MP; Anthea was on John Major's staff arranging his regional visits in 1992. Both have an interest in business. Both made it as candidates before Emily was dreamed of: Jacqui for her present constituency at the last election, when it was the safe Tory haven of Mid-Worcestershire, and Anthea at nearby Warley West in 1983.
Politics clearly dominate both women's lives. Jacqui is now a full-time councillor-candidate, whose househusband Richard looks after their three- year-old son, James. Anthea, 42, a management consultant, has a political CV as long as your arm. She trains budding Tory politicians, and chairs the West Midlands Conservative Political Centre.
Incidentally, there will almost certainly be fewer Conservative woman MPs in the new parliament. Only 15 women members of John Major's parliamentary party are standing again on 1 May, and some familiar names are likely losers. Elizabeth Peacock, the miners' champion, is vulnerable to a swing of less than 1 per cent, while authoress Edwina Currie and former education minister Dame Angela Rumbold, a former party vice-chairman, are in serious danger. Some new women will come in, but the Tory benches will present a strikingly different picture, with fewer than one in 10 occupied by a woman member.
Even so, Anthea Macintyre sees no cause to copy Labour. She scorns the concept of quotas, or of Emily's helping hand. "I think it does women a disservice," she argues. "You want to feel that people think you are selecting the best person for your constituency. If you are told you have to disregard people who you think are very good just so you can take a woman, you feel it's not a fair choice. What is necessary is to encourage people that this is a worthwhile job, that women are needed in politics. Women have a lot of qualities. They are practical, invariably hard-working, and willing to seek the best answer with a very unbiased approach. These qualities contribute greatly to the democratic process."
Jacqui Smith takes up the argument not far from where her rival leaves off, arguing it is not a question of numbers, but "how good is your legislature?" Women bring different experience, of child care, of the labour market, of public transport, of the health service and of education. "They bring a perspective that is not always considered in political discussion at present, perhaps a more realistic approach to economic policy," she insists.
One thing is for certain: we shall soon see if she's right.Reuse content