Will Emily's transatlantic cake go round?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
TOMORROW morning, Emily's List (UK) will be launched at the House of Commons, and a cake cut. The cake will be sponge and cream. The cake- eaters will be women with considerable clout, writers, barristers, politicians; the likes of Glenys Kinnock, Penelope Leach, Verity Lambert. There is, however, no Emily behind Emily's List. Emily stands for Early Money is Like Yeast (it makes the dough rise).

The acronym was given to the political action committee founded in the United States in 1985 to help Democratic Party women seeking election to high political office. It has been imported with the idea that it will help more women in the Labour Party get into Parliament, that it will taste as good in Pinner as in Peoria.

In the US, Emily's List has been mightily successful: its membership has soared from 3,000 to 24,000; it raised dollars 6.2m ( pounds 4.3m) last year. In the 1992 elections the number of women in the House of Representatives increased from 12 to 36, in the Senate from two to six. Most received seed money from Emily's List, which had already helped elect Ann Richards, governor of Texas.

Emily's List (US) supports only Democratic women who are for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and pro-choice on abortion. It got a tremendous leg-up from the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings: the spectacle of the all-male Senate panel, tiny Torquemadas in suits, grilling Hill, made women very angry.

Emily's List is about money. Ellen Malcolm, a political activist and heiress, set it up to help women kick-start their campaigns with early financing. Each member pays dollars 100 to join, each promises contributions of at least dollars 100 to two female candidates, all of whom are vetted by Ms Malcolm. 'If I were a man,' says Ms Malcolm, 'I'd be very nervous facing a woman on Emily's List, because I'd know she had a realistic chance of winning.'

Barbara Follett, the founder of Emily's List (UK), hopes it will give Labour Party women the financial support they need for essentials such as child care and travel during campaigns. The letters she receives, says Ms Follett, show that people in Britain 'feel politicians are corrupt - and that women are less corrupt. People are sick of men scoring points across a dispatch box while there are three million unemployed.'

Emily's List (UK) has modest aspirations: it aims to raise pounds 30,000 this year (it has raised pounds 25,000 in two weeks) and membership is pounds 30. Some of its members feel, realistically, that it will mostly rally the troops out of a deadly torpor. Others, some of them hugely successful women, tart and tough-minded, express a surprising sentimentality. Some invest Emily with awesome power. Emma Thompson, quoted in the Times, noted that political systems haven't changed since the turn of the century, that two world wars damaged women, and she hopes 'Emily will change that'.

But will Emily translate? In the US, there have been cohesive issues - primarily abortion - around which women have rallied for decades. Emily's List (US) focuses a beady eye on money and winning. In Britain, not everyone thinks money is the issue.

According to one astute political observer, 'Emily's List is pushing on an open door - but it might be the wrong door.' Both parties are obsessed by the gender gap, he says, yet the real problem is not money but the selection process at local level, which is still largely in 'the hands of overweight balding men, the legions of the disappointed'.

He says: 'The Labour Party in Parliament is still an extremely male organisation. You have to be a political obsessive to have any chance of being nominated for a safe seat.'

If a woman does make it to the Commons, she is unable or unlikely to want to spend long evenings arguing about the minutiae of legislation - 'this appeals mostly to men with poor social skills and few hobbies', my informant says. He notes that the Commons is a place of late nights, and, when you finally emerge, dark streets. 'More than money,' he says, 'it's really a question of street lighting.'

Emily's List (UK) also seems to be inextricably linked in the minds of its members to that epic which you could call the Clintoniad. Barbara Follett, who attended the Emily's List lunch during the Clinton inaugural, says, 'It was the most hopeful thing I've been to since losing the general election.'

The writer Sue Townsend, who feels the Labour Party blew it because its timid males were not radical enough, is a member of Emily (UK). 'We want a bit of razzmatazz - not the showbiz kind, but Aneurin Bevan-type socialism,' she says. 'We need superwomen who will do what Clinton did.'

But for one thing, you may be surprised to discover that Bevan was a razzmatazz guy. For another, Bill Clinton is a flaming moderate, from a state not strong on labour unions, and which retains the death penalty. His razzmatazz is showbiz, and Emily's List (US) doesn't produce superwomen: it funds mainstream politicians in suits.

A member of Emily's List (UK) who does not believe in the redemption of the Labour Party in a Bill Clinton identikit is Glenys Kinnock. 'Make it ours,' she says, 'Our systems are very different. In other words, buy British.'

The US and Britain are different; an organisation such as Emily's List will work in Britain only if it's cunningly adapted for local use, attuned to the issue of class. Glenda Jackson famously said that she had always imagined one of the great glories of Britain was that it would never allow fellow citizens to fall below a certain level. She was responding, I assume, to the Thatcher years. But what about the long and violent history of class, right back to the worlds of Dickens and Hogarth?

There is a problem of image, too. Emily's List (UK) will have to find a broad base if it's going to have any real political clout. The women who will eat cake in Westminster tomorrow are high-profile members of the chattering classes, a bit like America's 'Barbra Streisand Democrats'. Not every woman in Britain will be inspired by the sight of the glitterati eating cake.

Nor can I imagine Glenda Jackson boogieing to Fleetwood Mac. The rush of the Labour Party to Clintonise sometimes reminds me of Americans who try to turn themselves into British aristocrats by buying the right props from Ralph Lauren.