Clare Short: Women MPs have not been radical enough

When I arrived in 1983, the men would snigger if cervical cancer or child care were mentioned
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The Independent Online

The stories of women MPs being harassed in the House of Commons are sad. But the presence of more women has changed the culture of the place. When I arrived in 1983, there were fewer than 30 women. We were even given pegs at the front of the cloakroom so that the attendants could help us! Of course then, as now, some men were flirtatious and/or sexist around the building. But that tends to happen in most institutions. More seriously, in those days the men would snigger if cervical cancer was mentioned and issues like child care were not seen as serious politics.

The stories of women MPs being harassed in the House of Commons are sad. But the presence of more women has changed the culture of the place. When I arrived in 1983, there were fewer than 30 women. We were even given pegs at the front of the cloakroom so that the attendants could help us! Of course then, as now, some men were flirtatious and/or sexist around the building. But that tends to happen in most institutions. More seriously, in those days the men would snigger if cervical cancer was mentioned and issues like child care were not seen as serious politics.

It was, I am sure, worse for the generations before us. We were part of the women's movement generation. The men and the media frequently sneered at us as strident feminists but we knew that domestic violence and child sex abuse were part of the political agenda. The generation of Barbara Castle, Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams had to talk about taxes and steel to prove that they were as good as the men.

It was the 1997 election that brought in the big increase in women on Labour's benches. They were the fruit of a long struggle and sometimes bitter argument about how we could make the Labour Party more representative of the country. Our sister parties in Scandinavia and the trade union movement taught us how. The Scandinavians were the first to use quotas to ensure equal representation of men and women in all offices in their parties. They took their example to the Socialist International and it spread across the world, delivering 30 per cent women in the first democratic South African parliament and 20 per cent in Indian local government.

The use of quotas to ensure increased women's representation is now mainstream in the developing world. Rwanda has taken over from Sweden as the parliament with the best record. In Britain it was the trade unions that moved first. They were concerned to improve recruitment and decided that their male image was a barrier to recruitment of women in sectors where women workers were well represented. The move to quotas to secure better representation built on old Labour movement traditions where the struggle for women's suffrage had left behind a commitment to women's sections on which the move to quotas could be built.

The Labour Party had tried rules to require one woman on every shortlist and special training, but still it seemed there was always a favourite son and he usually won. Then John Smith became leader and he was determined to make progress. The Women's Committee of the NEC has become committed to the Scandinavian model and many trade unions were supportive. Because we did not select by party lists we had to be inventive and pair winnable seats and insist one of each pair had an all-women shortlist. It was this that delivered the breakthrough. Of course, the Daily Mail hated it, and when Tony Blair took over as leader he very nearly dropped the system, but some strong lobbying from all parts of the party and beyond held his toes to the fire.

And thus in 1997 the parliamentary Labour Party looked more like the country and it became normal to see women of all shapes and sizes distributed across the green benches. This is undoubtedly changing girls' images of what they might be in the world, but has it made much difference to parliament? I am certain it has changed the feel of the place. We have had lots of pregnant MPs and breastfeeding MPs. Talking about breast cancer, domestic violence and childcare is now mainstream. I do not accept that the reduced hours are a women's triumph because for those who live outside London we would prefer fewer days but to sit in the evening. In fact, the lack of evening sittings has increased the individualisation that eases New Labour's control freakery.

The big disappointment is that the women did not bring a new radicalism. But now I am for the first time on the back benches as part of a governing party with an exaggerated majority, I realise how marginalised and weak is parliament under New Labour.

The question now is how many women will be left after the next election. The pollsters say that the distribution of party support is now so favourable to the Labour Party that even if Labour and the Tories got equal votes Labour would have a majority of 100. This would remove some of the women in the 1997 intake, but still leave a sizeable number. The wild card is the Liberal Democrat vote. A 10 per cent swing to the Lib Dems might produce an extra 80 Tories, 20 to 30 Lib Dems and a much smaller Labour majority. It would also greatly reduce the number of women. But I don't think the House of Commons will ever go back to being the boys' club it was from its foundation until 1997.

The writer is Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood

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