Labour in Blackpool: Turning the tide for women: Patricia Wynn Davies reports on the campaigner who is winning the gender war

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'THEY should think of the lost generation of women. They should take comfort from the fact that their sacrifice will make Britain truly democratic. Perhaps they should do what women did, and work behind the scenes.'

That is the uncompromising message from Barbara Follett - image consultant turned equality campaigner - to men who might lose out under Labour's women's quota scheme.

There is a lot of talk about a 'generation' of men who would have spent years cultivating political careers, only to see their chances of selection as a parliamentary candidate blocked by the imposition of an all-woman shortlist.

Mrs Follett is confident that the scheme - all-woman lists in half the seats where male MPs are retiring and in half the winnable marginals - will be implemented remarkably smoothly. Even then, it will only ensure that 24 per cent of Labour MPs after the next election are women.

Selection purely on merit ensured that in 1992 men were selected in 90 per cent of all safe Labour seats that became vacant, while the 20 retiring Labour MPs were replaced by 18 men and two women.

The strongly pro-equality mood of Wednesday's debate on the issue, and the succession of visitors to the Emily's List/Labour Women's Network stand at the conference, shows a 'sea-change in people's attitudes', she says. Last year men came up and accused her of being 'wrong-headed'. This year, the stand had to order a fresh batch of leaflets to meet demand.

Emily's List UK, the sponsorship scheme to help prospective Labour candidates with the costs of selection for Westminster and Euro seats, has attracted 500 supporters since Mrs Follett launched it last year. Another 500 have signed up to Labour Women's Network, a training organisation that gives practical advice on how to win a selection contest.

Mrs Follett has dropped her former career as style and grooming guru to Labour's front bench - although arguably the diminutive and exceedingly smart 51-year-old grandmother still advises by example.

The reputedly bossy but unbombastic Mrs Follett has twice fought elections for Labour and became a firm friend of Neil Kinnock, but the politicisation came much earlier in South Africa where she lived from her mid-teens to her mid-30s. Her main political influences have been Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Helen Susman, the former progressive MP and anti-apartheid campaigner. She threw herself into work with Women for Peace after the 1976 riots, working closely with Albertina Sisulu, and Leah Tutu who brought collective representation at a stroke to most black female workers with the creation of the Domestic Servants Union.

While now the happy beneficiary of the fabled Chelsea lifestyle with third husband Ken, the millionaire thriller author whom she met through Farnham Labour Party, she has suffered her traumas. At the age of 13, her eldest daughter witnessed the point-blank shooting of her estranged first husband, the South African philosopher Richard Turner.

Years later, the ANC decided on a 30 per cent quota of women election candidates after seeking her advice.

She subscribes to the growing view that larger numbers of women of any political hue would profoundly change the 'yah boo, boys' games' atmosphere at Westminster, and she admires the guts of Teresa Gorman, the right-wing Tory MP who has made herself unpopular for promoting women's causes.

She draws the line there, however, dismissing any notion of getting involved in a broader cross-party campaign. 'Gender can never supersede ideology,' she says firmly.