Well, Joan, I guess we should be grateful for small mercies

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The announcement that Joan Ruddock, Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford, is to become the junior minister for women for no extra salary on top of her MP's pay, only adds the icing to the christening cake. Who is being christened? Why, the big, bouncy new acronym to which the Labour Government has given birth in only its first few weeks in power.

The acronym, GFSM - as in Grateful for Small Mercies - encapsulates precisely what amounts to Labour's policy on women. And, sadly, the midwives at the birth have been female politicians old enough and experienced enough to demand far better terms.

GFSM means that when Joan Ruddock is appointed and scandalously accepts to forego the pounds 20,000 pay rise to which she is entitled, we murmur, "let's wait and see, don't kick up a fuss yet." Instead, we should be asking why this government was so ill-prepared that it allowed the Treasury coffers to empty before provision was made.

If aides in Blair's office can be paid almost pounds 90,000 a year there is no excuse for a minister for women who works for free. It sends out the wrong message: New Labour - Old Lads. It's all in the presentation. Blair has spoken much of the new style of government, so why adopt the old style of attitude to women's labour?

GFSM means that we won't demand - as we should - that in the very first government reshuffle, the next junior minister (inevitably male) who is appointed should forfeit his salary to Ms Ruddock. See what a fuss the boys make then.

GFSM also has Ms Ruddock in its thrall. She's grateful to have been given a government job, grateful that women even have a reference. She might do some homework, since she has been away from what is incorrectly termed "women's issues" for so long. ("Women's issues" are human issues, family issues, everybody's issues.) She might read, Governing for Equality. It's a document drawn up by Labour in opposition, when it was desperate for the female vote.

It pledges itself to putting women at the heart of government (presumably, it forgot to add, "part-time"). It makes a number of valuable suggestions, among them the setting up of a House of Commons select committee to scrutinise the impact on women of all policies. Such a good idea - such a resounding silence so far on the issue. But GFSM tells us that to expect a select committee too is more than greedy, it's not the way nice girls behave.

Still, some are heard to cry, shouldn't we be grateful for small mercies? Isn't this so much better than what went before? Well, yes and no. Grateful for small mercies is all too useful for a government with no genuine commitment to radically altering priorities so that women, half the population, are truly considered alongside men. GFSM paralyses the voice of opposition. GFSM makes the muscle of protest go lax.

New Labour, after all, has had 18 years in opposition. It's had plenty of time to devise concrete policies. GFSM means that when we hear that Harriet Harman, social security secretary and Joan Ruddock's boss, is "consulting" on a national childcare strategy, we express appreciation. Instead, there should be anger that the talking isn't long gone, and the strategy isn't already being put into place - properly subsidised, good- quality childcare available to all.

Joan Ruddock was one of the leading lights of CND. In the different mood of Blair's Labour Party, she learned to curb her opinions. Let's hope she recovers her bolshy strain, becomes a thoroughly bad girl, abandons GFSM and does her new job so well that she is speedily given the sack in a healthy blaze of publicity which might then initiate real change. The small consolation, of course, is that she won't miss the money.

Yvonne Roberts

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