Toeing the party line

A tap-dancing Home Office minister has inspired female MPs to introduce a different kind of spin to the House of Commons. Ed Caesar joins them for a quick shuffle
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Indy Politics

There's an extraordinary sound echoing down the corridors of power. A group of middle-aged women in the Palace of Westminster are shrieking with laughter, a noise which is only punctuated by the tap-clickety-tap of metal on wood. If someone were to put their head round the door at this moment, they would get the fright of their lives. In the centre of the room, a female backbencher is dancing on a table while, in the corner, there are glimpses of female flesh as latecomers do a quick change into tap shoes and T-shirts. Welcome to the wonderful world of the Division Belles, Parliament's very own tap troupe.

There's an extraordinary sound echoing down the corridors of power. A group of middle-aged women in the Palace of Westminster are shrieking with laughter, a noise which is only punctuated by the tap-clickety-tap of metal on wood. If someone were to put their head round the door at this moment, they would get the fright of their lives. In the centre of the room, a female backbencher is dancing on a table while, in the corner, there are glimpses of female flesh as latecomers do a quick change into tap shoes and T-shirts. Welcome to the wonderful world of the Division Belles, Parliament's very own tap troupe.

The inspiration for this unique society came from a lifelong tapper - Hazel Blears, now a minister in the Home Office . As "Blair's babes" swept into office in the Labour landslide of 1997, there was suddenly an enormous number of female MPs in this traditionally male bastion. Blears saw the opportunity to start a group that would encourage Parliament's new girls to socialise and have some fun together, even if only for one hour a week.

"It's all about learning something new", enthuses Meg Munn, the member for Sheffield Heeley. "And having fun", adds Bev Hughes, the member for Stretford and Urmston. "And being normal", continues Dari Taylor, the member for Stockton South, without a hint of irony.

Taylor thinks that Blears's efforts have been worthwhile. "Westminster can be a lonely place for a woman when you arrive" she says, to murmurs of approval from the group, "and a group like this is a great way of getting to know other women."

The one hour per week is a regular Monday-night fixture at a Westminster gym. The Belles are taken through their paces by a professional dance teacher, Karen King, whose patience is often stretched. While there are some experienced tappers, like Blears, there are some who came to the Belles with no prior experience of dancing. As Lesley Hall, the wife of the MP Mike Hall, admits, "she has to put up with us being really stupid."

Ever the politician, Munn puts a little spin on the issue. "I think when we approached her, we said she'd need to be able to cope with teaching women MPs", she says with a little self-deprecating smirk. "People come late, or have to leave early. That's just part of the pressure of the job. And she deals with it all brilliantly."

Despite their seemingly unusual hobby, the 10-to-12 women who make up the Division Belles do appear to be decidedly "normal". Easy-going and personable, they are the opposite of the political stereotype. Laura Moffatt, the member for Crawley, explains that this is part of the appeal of tap dancing with the Belles.

"It would be a mistake to think that this is all we do. This is one hour in what is a 70-hour week for most of us. It's just a moment where we come together and have a bit of fun. We're learning something new. We think seriously, we are serious, for so much of the week", she says. "But you rarely hear that we're friendly with each other. You always hear stories about how we are trying to knife each other in the back. Some people might think, 'haven't you got better ways of spending your time', but this is so necessary."

"It breaks down the divisions between us," say Taylor, explaining why she has stayed committed to the group despite her somewhat unorthodox time-keeping. "If you're a bit shy, or a bit inward-looking, or a bit over-stacked with work, then it's perfect. Everyone's in the same boat for an hour."

Meg agrees: "It's very relaxing. When you're thinking about where your feet are going, you can't be thinking about where that piece of casework or speech you're writing is."

Despite the occasional wrong (or creative) step, the Monday-night event has been a runaway success. Moffatt tells the story which spawned the group's name: a rehearsal that was quickly disbanded because of the sounding of the division bell. With only eight minutes to get into the voting chamber, the troupe had to high-tail it across Westminster, still in their tapping outfits. "We were running across the yard, clapping and laughing, just in high spirits", she recalls. "But everyone assumed we had been drinking. I think that tells you an awful lot about this place. The only way that people think they can have fun here is by drinking, and of course, there's so much else to do here that's fun."

Extra-curricular activities are well represented at Westminster. There are numerous sports teams, a Parliamentary choir, and even a rock band called MP4. Indeed, the Division Belles' one public performance of the year normally comes at the Parliamentary Palace of Varieties evening, which took place last Thursday, but this year, with election fever cutting down their rehearsal time, they were unable to perform. "In the week leading up to the concert, we'd be snatching 15min any time we could to rehearse", says Meg. "We performed in the boiler-room in the basement, because it had a hard floor. God knows what the janitor thought."

It is easy to forget that most of the women who are involved in the troupe - some are wives of MPs or in administrative positions - are elected representatives. They are also all members of the Labour Party. But when I ask whether the Belles would accept a new tapper from another party, the reply is overwhelming. "Of course", says Laura. "They know we do it, so they could come and ask."

Taylor, in her other guise as a soprano in the Parliament Choir, sings alongside "a conservative friend of mine", and it seems that, in such extra-curricular activities, cross-party socialising is very much part of the fun. The Belles are quick to point out, though, that the all-Labour nature of the Division Belles is largely to do with statistics. While there are 94 women MPs from the Labour Party there are only 22 from all the others.

More conspicuous, though, than the lack of Conservatives or Liberal Democrats in the Belles' ranks, is the absence of men. There was a male Labour MP, John Denham, who tried his hand with the Belles, but a promotion to Minister of State in the Home Office put paid to his dancing. Generally, though, the group is happy to be all-female. "I think a big part of the attraction is that we're all women", says Catherine Jackson, a Labour Party worker, to widespread nodding.

In a place like Westminster, which has often been described as an extension of an English public school, one can see the attraction of a little women-only recreation. And, it seems, the sillier the better. But, for now, their time is up. The meeting room is hastily re-arranged; chairs are replaced and tables are given a quick polish; the women don suit jackets and rush to their next appointments. Were it not for the breathless chatter disappearing down the corridor, it would seem that the Belles had never been here.

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