Barbara Follett knows the value of first impressions. As image consultant to the Labour Party, she was famously responsible for massaging the donkey-jacket die-hard look of the old-style Left into something more sleekly electable. For this, she had the distinction of becoming a verb in her own lifetime. The Folletting of Labour became the chief sideshow of the 1992 general election, as one made- over MP after another was "outed" by the press. Jack Cunningham, Harriet Harman, and, most spectacularly, Robin Cook, whose Pauline conversion to autumnal shades so delighted the media, were Folletted out of all recognition. "Browns and oysters," chirruped the newly glamorous Cook. "No doubt it works. I was staggered by how many people came up to me saying how well I looked."
Follett is understandably weary of the "frock doctor" tag. "It's not something I'm ashamed of, I simply don't want to be remembered as the image consultant," she says evenly. She does, however, take time to point out the impeccable political antecedents of her commitment to good grooming. "It was Steve Biko who said to me once, when I was going out on a demonstration in South Africa dressed in a kaftan, with an armload of bracelets and long, beatnik hair, that if you want to say something radical, you have to dress conservative."
Barbara Follett was born in Jamaica, the daughter of an ex-pat British insurance broker. Her early childhood was spent in Ethiopia, where she remembers being dandled on Haile Selassie's knee. In 1957, the family moved to South Africa, where Barbara, accustomed to black rule in Ethiopia, was bewildered by the brutality of apartheid. By the age of 16, she had met her first husband, the South African political philosopher Richard Turner. Together they formed Kupu Gani (Uplift Yourself), a relief organisation, which bought up cheap milk, dried it and distributed it to families in the black townships. After the 1976 riots, Follett joined South African Women for Peace, working with Leah Tutu and Albertina Sisulu to establish the Domestic Servants Union. In 1978, her by-then-estranged husband was assassinated by a death squad in front of the couple's two young daughters. Follett's abiding memory of South Africa is the smell of blood on her children's hair. When she, too, received death threats, she fled withher family to Surrey, where she set about re-organising the local Labour branch. Six years and two husbands later, she met and married Ken Follett, multi-millionaire benefactor of the Labour Party.
The immersion politics of South Africa have left their mark. "You learn to make the most of every advantage, however small," explains Follett, who makes political coin of the most unpromising materials. The smart, boxy jacket she wears today is her "armour" in a male- dominated arena. "Just look at the difference it makes," she says, shrugging off her shoulderpads to reveal a startlingly dainty form. This is a woman who wears lipstick on principle.
"Lipstick isn't sexy. Lipstick is power. I hate wearing lipstick, but it's important. They've done studies on it." Follett's vehemence on the subject of lip colour, each careful word framed in a vivid pink pout, is a little unsettling. n The Left has always enjoyed a good slogan. property is theft came roundly to the point. eat the rich had a certain redneck charm.
But lipstick is power?
"I am right," says Follett firmly. "It's all about authority and women not being seen as victims. A founder member of the Labour Women's Network and visiting fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research, Follett is currently writing a book entitled The British Woman: A Status Report. Her findings are not encouraging.
"It's a continual surprise to me, how little we've progressed," she says. ``With ten per cent of women MPs in Parliament, we're still basically granted a tithe of British life."
While the Labour Party's introduction of all-women quotas will go some way to redressing the balance, Follett, who stood unsuccessfully for election in the "Injun territory" of Woking (1983) and Epsom (1987) and is set to stand again in 1997, is convinced that what women need most is practical help at grass-roots level. The business of seeking a Parliamentary seat is expensive and time-consuming and women, who are statistically likely to be in lower-paid jobs, and who may have the additional cost of childcare to consider, are at a financial disadvantage. Women candidates are also very much less likely to be sponsored in the traditional way by the trade unions. After Labour's 1992 election defeat, Follett took the matter into her own hands and launched Emily's List UK, a donor network set up to fund and encourage women to stand for selection and election to Parliament.
"Having been a politician in South Africa, you get used to defeat and train yourself to repeat some kind of mantra to keep going. I stood behind Neil Kinnock on the steps of Walworth Road on election night, and, in order not to burst into tears, I kept saying, `Well, do the next best thing.' Emily's List was the next best thing."
Emily's List is an oddly dinky name for a feminist fighting fund, conjuring rather a Cotswolds gift shop selling hand-crafted mice in mob-caps or an exclusive range of mail-order lingerie. The Emily in question is a toe-curling acronym: Early Money Is Like Yeast (it makes the dough rise!). Follett cannot be blamed for this, as the title was borrowed from Emily's List (US), which has raised funds for women in the Democratic Party since 1985. Inevitably, the concept has not translated perfectly.
"Britain is not a society that is used to having funds raised; it's used to the state providing," explains Follett. "The British will give to the needy, but not to politicians. In this case, we're talking about needy, would-be politicians, but it's stilla hard idea to sell." For all that, the initial funding target, enough to sponsor and train 11 women, was raised within two months of the launch. Follett, who likes to lead by example, hit the telephones and drummed up £26,000, single-handed, in just ten days. Emily has plenty of friends in high places. Margaret Beckett, Glenys Kinnock, and Baronesses Blackstone, Jay and Dean lend political gravitas, while Carmen Callil, Fay Weldon, Juliet Stevenson and Emma Thompson fly the red flag for the Arts. On 6February, the first Emily Awards, a consciousness-raising event to honour women of achievement, will take place at the Cafe Royal. The award categories, which include the ``Breaking the Glass Ceiling'' Award, the ``Beating the Backlash'' Award and the ``Uphill All the Way'' Award, are stoutly exhortative, while the delightfully un-macho ``Emily Man'' Award will go to the man who has done most to advance women in politics. Tickets for the £125-a-head bash sold out weeks ago. The Washington-on-Thames approach is not universally appreciated. "There is always the danger that Emily's List will be viewed as being slightly elitist," says Nicola Kutapan, who stood, unsuccessfully, as the Labour candidate for Solihull in 1992. "The Emily launch was basically acake-cutting and embroidery event, and one of the concerns within the party was that it had been set up to promote a particular kind of Southern woman. There are advantages and disadvantages to someone like Barbara Follett being involved. The advantagesare that she's a wonderful name, she can get money and all the rest of it, but there are negative aspects too; the idea that you have to look pretty and wear the right colour lipstick to get on can be off-putting to a lot of women."
However, it is Emily's pro-choice stand on the issue of abortion that has ruffled most feathers. While Follett points out that it is written in Labour's manifesto that the party is pro-choice, the issue has traditionally been treated as a matter of conscience on both sides of the House. "There are a lot of Northern and Scottish constituencies where women, who may themselves be pro-choice, still have to face a selection process in an area which is strongly Catholic," says Kutapan. "I think it's a shame that Emily has imposed this criterion on candidates, because it is seriously limiting the opportunities for women in precisely the areas where we really need to see more female MPs."
Follett is immovable on the pro-choice issue: "Given that there have been 25 attempts to revive the 1967 Abortion Act, it would be an own goal of monumental proportions if we funded a woman into Parliament who could n tip the balance over and deprive other women of choice." She is, however, at pains to rid Emily of the Southern shoulder-pad syndrome. The beneficiaries of the 1994 List included candidates from Yorkshire, Merseyside, Tyneside and Wales. (There were no applications from Scotland.) The 11 women on the List each received £1,000 towards administrative costs and training.
Sally Young, a city councillor in Newcastle, believes that her chances at the next election will be considerably improved by her Emily sponsorship. "I stood for a seat at the last elections but I wasn't selected. At that time, I was working part-time, I was on family credit and I was a single parent. A few hundred pounds to spend on travelling to meetings and extra childcare could have made all the difference."
Clare Short, MP, the Labour Party's spokesperson for women, admits to initial reservations about Emily, but she, too, is impressed by the efficiency of Emily's support system.
"It's an idea taken directly from America and the thing about America is that, over there, you simply cannot be in politics unless you can command big money as an individual. So Emily was appropriate for their system. But here, politics, even in the ToryParty, isn't about your own personal money. So when Emily's List was brought over here, I was a bit sceptical. But Emily has broadened its agenda and become a sort of centrepoint for looking at the barriers women face. It's moved beyond money and becomea much more valuable project."
Follett is aware that her own glamorous profile can result in misassumptions about Emily: "There is this idea that I'm trying to promote women like myself and I'm not. I'm trying to promote women who can't do it. I know what it's like," she goes on, hurriedly, "because I've been there. I couldn't afford it myself until I teamed up with Ken."
When Barbara met Ken, they were both working for the Farnham branch of the Labour Party. He thought she was too bossy by half; she thought he looked like a weasel. It was 1983 and Barbara, married at the time to Les Broer, an architect by whom she has a 19-year-old son, was the candidate for "totally unwinnable" Woking. (Just for the record, she campaigned in remodelled suits from Oxfam.) The turning point in their relationship came when Barbara presented Ken (who was also married) with a copy of Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook wrapped in one of her election posters. In fact, Barbara was the third woman to give Ken the Lessing book, but this time he read it and understood that it was the story of her life. Later, he was to immortalise her in a bookof his own, Lie Down With Lions, the story of an uninhibited young freedom-fighter with a turned-up nose, full lips and hair like a bird's unfolded wing.
Life with the Folletts at their £2million family home on Cheyne Walk is a highly structured family interface event. Ken does the cooking one week and Barbara does it the next. They also take it in turns to write the "forward programme" for the week, listing all business and social engagements and even domestic menus. The couple have five children between them and Barbara's nephew also lives en famille. Any family member who isn't living at home that week receives a copy of the forward programme in the post "to keep the lines of communication open". One week in every month is spent on the Cote d'Azur. A certain amount of entertain- ing is expected. The Folletts' Irish stew and champagne parties are said to knock the Archers' shepherd's pie and champagneparties into a cocked hat.
Barbara Follett is marvellously un-coy on the subject of her husband's wealth. "People say to me `You're rich'. I don't see it like that. Ken is rich and I'm glad, because it's an enormous worry off my back. Anyone who tells me money is bad is talking rubbish. Money is wonderful. It means you can get on and do other things." She has no liberal qualms about employing domestic staff (all paid-up union members), but makes a point of doing her own shopping once a week: "You know how Mao used to send people back to work for a month, well I'm a strong believer in that. I know it sounds awfully politically correct, but you cannot have people working with you if you don't know how to do their job." She is quite serious. Irony, one senses, is not Barbara Follett's middle name.
When choosing her spiritual guides, it seems, Follett has a fondness for tiny despots: "When I was studying history, I really admired Napoleon because he was such a good administrator. I didn't admire him so much for what he did, n as for his methods. But whenever I say that, Ken always winces. I suppose I do tend to organise people, not always correctly, but I do have a clear vision of how I want things to be, and sometimes I steamroll.
"When I was studying history", or "As an economic historian" are typical Follett openers; she is also delighted to note that she is being taped on a machine identical to the one she used while doing the research for her post- graduate degree in industrial relations. This is fair enough; she is an extensively educated woman and has doubtless spent long hours learning how to maximise her impact in the shortest possible time, but you don't actually need a history degree to know that Napoleon was a fiend for the forward programme. The repeated self-assertion ultimately loses its intended effect. Instead of being impressed, one is disturbingly reminded of the white-coated man in the toothpaste advertisement who announces himself as "not a dentist" but goes on to harangue the viewer about teeth.
And yet, for all her technique - voice low and emphatic, hands folded in her lap like a convent girl to rivet attention on the face - there is a bugger-them-all enthusiasm about Follett that is wholly likeable. Her passions do not always run parallel; one minute she is talking a blue streak about the semantics of feminism and the need for an "ungendered" vocabulary and the next she is explaining that she has taken four different men's surnames because she was ribbed about her maiden name (Hubbard) in the playground. She can switch hobby-horses at full gallop, leaping from Sartre's destructive power relationship with Simone de Beauvoir to the inadequate provision of women's toilets in public places. The toilets, she readily acknowledges, are becoming something of an obsession.
"Why do women spend the entire interval in theatres in a loo queue?" she demands. "The new Glyndebourne is a disgrace! Why are men's loos always on the floor of the conference rooms, but the women's are one floor down or up? I think it's a very importantissue. I'm writing a survey on it."
When it is suggested that true equality might result in women hoisting their taffeta in unison along a row of open stalls, she allows that this might be possible, but not in a tight skirt. "Unfortunately," she points out in the tone of someone who has just happens to have read the most recent research on this very subject, "by clothes and by biological function, women are different."