Election '97: What women want from the next government

Joan Smith asks what issues a stronger female presence in the corridors of power will bring to the fore
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Indy Politics
Whether the next incumbent of 10 Downing Street is Tony Blair or John Major, he will preside over a parliament with far more women MPs than ever. It seems fair to assume that this means more attention to issues that concern women: health, education and childcare rather than defence, foreign affairs and economics. But are we right to assume that women have different priorities from men? And if they do, is it because the sexes are different or because of the structural inequalities that affect women's lives more than they do men's?

"I don't think that in the main women expect different things," said Margaret Rudland, headmistress of a prestigious west London girls' school and one of nine women whose views I canvassed this week. Miss Rudland, like almost all the others, made childcare a priority. Yet this is a women's issue only in the sense that, until very recently, most fathers built their careers on the free childcare provided by their wives or partners. The women I spoke to were also concerned about crime, Europe, cancer screening, a single currency and social justice.

When parliament meets for the first time after the election, there will be many new faces in the Commons, and a substantial number will be female. At the start of this century, Freud demanded of his friend Princess Marie Bonaparte: "What do women want?" Maybe we are about to find out.

Bridget Rosewell, 45, chairman of Business Strategies, member of the Chancellor's panel of independent forecasters ("Six Wise People").

What we want is a sensible attitude to Europe - a government that looks at opportunities instead of the lowest- common-denominator loudmouthing both main parties appear to be doing. That means taking a single currency seriously instead of keeping our eyes firmly shut and hoping it won't happen. It will and we will be left behind again. We also want a minimum wage - I think that's a women's issue as it would affect a much higher proportion of female workers. There might have to be two or three rates. It's the principle that's important. I'd also like politicians to stop demonising young people, and look seriously at the decriminalisation of soft drugs. Finally, proportional representation - it's terribly macho, this first-past-the-post system.

Caroline Coon, 51, artist.

I want front-bench male politicians to wear skirts or kilts - it might encourage them to be less dour, gloomy and mean. We need at least four more public holidays a year. We need politicians to persuade us to pay direct taxation to maintain our superb welfare state, especially childcare, education, pensions and public transport. I'd like politicians to know and act on the fact that private insurance is usually an expensive con. And I'd like to see politicians stop waging a useless and hypocritical war on drugs.

Karen Luke, 29, mature student and single mother.

I'm especially interested in education and further education to give people opportunities, which means affordable childcare. Here in Edinburgh it costs at least pounds 100 a week. Political parties go on about getting people back to work but they aren't doing anything. You are penalised for having children and politicians blame the ills of Britain on single parents. It makes me very angry.

Carmen Callil, 58, publisher.

Give Clare Short her job back. We could do with a few clones like her who tell the truth. And I would like Labour to become stauncher against all pro-life activists. The other thing is education. I don't think Labour or the Conservatives are concerned enough with the actual content of education. Politicians are mostly very ill-educated when you speak to them.

Nicola Horlick, 36, businesswoman and mother of five.

Childcare is a major issue. The cost is phenomenal and it's not offsetable against tax. Provision is poor and I constantly come across people in the City who really wanted to work when they had a child.

Education is also important and I don't really believe what anybody says about it. It's a shame it has to be a political football. I'd like an all-party body that deals with education. I believe it's right to have comprehensive education - children shouldn't be thrown on the scrapheap at 11 - but it was done in a very haphazard way. That's an example of how things can be done for the wrong reasons. I also think teachers should be paid more.

Tessa Sanderson, 41, athlete and former Olympic champion.

I'd like to see class sizes smaller, so teachers can cope, and more activities outside school so kids can be involved instead of roaming the streets. I'd like a centre of excellence - as a sportswoman, I feel not enough is done to encourage up-and-coming people.

I'd also like to see the police a bit more controlled. The Stephen Lawrence case was very sensitive for me; I followed it and I really felt for the parents.

Kay Carberry, 46, head of equal rights, TUC.

I'm not going to the next government with a shopping list but there are some fundamental things a government could do to help women at work. The kind of things that are important to women are access to affordable childcare. We also have high on our priorities the position of part-time workers; they still don't have the same rights as full-timers. I'm talking about rights such as paid holidays.

There are other areas. We've now got maternity leave but you don't get statutory maternity pay for the same number of weeks as you get leave. The other area we hope the government will give attention to is equal rights legislation. At the moment it's still very difficult for women to claim equal pay for work of equal value. It's a long- drawn-out and expensive process.

Margaret Rudland, 51, headmistress, Godolphin & Latymer School, London.

I talked to my head girl and deputy and they said we just need more women MPs - more female opinions. Without more women MPs it's hopeless. Over and over again it's the male point of view coming forward.

In practical terms, I'd like to see much earlier screening for cancer. As the head of a school I see my parents and staff suffering. Other countries do it much better. I'd also like to see an improvement in childcare facilities at work, and tax relief on childcare. I'm sure women would welcome what all the parties want to do, which is provide greater nursery care of a higher quality, available to everybody.

Michele Roberts, 47, novelist.

As a feminist, I hope they'd slash the defence budget, releasing an incredible amount of money to fund education, the NHS and the arts. We need to free our imaginations - if you want a better world, you've got to be able to imagine it.