Breaking the rules of the gentlemen's club

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The Independent Online
There is a rifle range and 11 bars but no creche. The priorities in the facilities at the House of Commons say it all.

A male preserve run like a gentlemen's club, the splash of colour from a Teresa Gorman blouse or a Harriet Harman suit was a striking variation on the ranks of navy and grey on the benches last parliament. But with a change of government now likely, another potentially far-reaching change is on the cards - for the first time, more than 100 women may be elected to the House.

There are some who can barely believe this is possible. Lesley Abdela, who 17 years ago founded the 300 Group to try to get as many women as men into Parliament, says she had hoped there would be 90. "If there's 100 I'll be cracking open the champagne. I'll be over the moon," she said yesterday.

A detailed breakdown of candidates and percentage swings carried out by the campaigning organisation the Fawcett Society suggest that, on current voting intentions, women will be flexing their muscles at every stage of the legislative process in the next parliament. With an 8 per cent swing to Labour, there will be perhaps 111 women MPs - including 92 Labour and 15 Tories - out of the 659 members. A six per cent swing could still push the total over the 100 mark. And that, say women of all parties, could be "critical mass". They would be no longer the odd ones out, square feminine pegs in round male holes.

"MPs at the moment talk as if male experience is the norm," said Mary- Ann Stephenson of the Fawcett Society. "Injecting the women's perspective into debates is going to be a significant breakthrough."

For the Tories, new faces likely to be having their say at Westminster include Anne McIntosh, a married lawyer, and Caroline Spelman, also married and a commercial negotiator. For Labour, there is Louise Ellman, a mother of two and Open University counsellor, and Yvette Cooper, an economics journalist. Others in the running include Barbara Follett, the image consultant and wife of the novelist Ken, and Lorna Fitzsimons, the former president of the National Union of Students.

Some well-known faces are likely to disappear, of course. Edwina Currie looks vulnerable, and the Conservatives could end up with only 10 women MPs compared with 25 last time. Glenda Jackson, who swapped her acting career for Labour politics, has a fight on - against four female rivals - in Hampstead, north London.

Regardless of individual fortunes, Janet Anderson, Labour's spokeswoman on women's affairs, believes the overall effect would be huge. "First of all visually," she says. "When people turn on their televisions they will see on our side maybe 80 or 100 women. They are less likely to feel it's run like an exclusive gentlemen's club because it won't look like one."

The knock-on effect will be to change the culture of Westminster. "Women are so used to juggling their lives that they want to put their time to best use. I think women will stand up in the Commons, say what they have to say and sit down. We may end up with a more business-like approach."

The oppressiveness of the present culture should not be underestimated. Baroness Williams, a Cabinet member in the last Labour government and now a Liberal Democrat, says women were an "endangered species" when she was first an MP.

When she returned under the SDP banner in 1981 after an 18-month absence, she was reminded what an "extraordinary" way it was to run the country. "It's crazy," she said. "Most women - and it has got nothing to do with ability - find that atmosphere intolerable."

A system where the method of discussion is highly adversarial and where most of the votes take place after 10pm is not one that appeals to many women, she believes. And it is difficult to reconcile with having a family.

By contrast, Scandinavian parliaments are saner, calmer places making better long-term decisions, not because the Scandinavians are better than the British but because the structure of government pays more respect to women, she says. "Men [in Britain] have made room for women, but they have not made changes for them."

Electing women will help to change the system, thereby enabling more women to get into government and revolutionise what and how decisions are reached. "I think it's going to make the country better run," says Baroness Williams.

She joins the Fawcett Society and Janet Anderson in naming a number of policy issues more likely to be addressed once women have a grip on power. No woman would set up a system of pensions based on a life-time's ability to work when it is obvious that it will not provide for many women, they point out. Child care should move up the agenda alongside domestic violence and the health service.

Baroness Williams says: "I can remember Gro Harlem Brundtland, the [last] prime minister in Norway, saying she knew the culture had changed when a minister asked if he could leave cabinet 10 minutes early to pick up his child. You can't imagine that happening here."

Women are not always their own best supporters. Edwina Currie points out that the Tory MP Ann Winterton opposed help for women with children going out to work because she thought they should not. And Dame Jill Knight opposed a creche at the Commons.

But Mrs Currie is keen to emphasise the "feminine touch". She worked with the Ministry of Defence, not on tanks and weapons, but on Army housing, Gulf war syndrome and bullying. "The armed forces approach is macho. I took an interest in a different way, in a different tone."

She predicts women would take strength in numbers and adopt a "more militant attitude" to issues affecting women and children, and that the "chaps won't feel able to laugh and pooh-pooh" anything women said.

This has certainly been the habit of some in the past. The Tory MP David Evans, in one of his more controversial outbursts, made his contempt for his female colleagues clear. Women in Parliament were "usually ordinary", he said. They were promoted even when "dead from the neck upwards".

Lesley Abdela says she suspected many of the new crop of women would be very good, not least because they would have had to fight particularly hard to get there. But as the numbers increased, the women would be like the men - some brilliant, others less so, a reflection of the population they represented.

However, ordinary or not, the point is that women's voices will finally make themselves heard at Westminster. "We're well on the way now. But we can't sit back yet. One hundred down, 200 more to go."