Shame on the whole lot of you

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The Independent Online

Good heavens. Do I spy a common objective emerging among all three of our major political parties? Golly, I think I do.

Good heavens. Do I spy a common objective emerging among all three of our major political parties? Golly, I think I do.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy has been huffing and puffing recently about how the low number of women in Parliament is "shameful". He believes that radical action is needed to redress the imbalance of MPs, of whom only 121 out of 659 are women. Of these only three are Lib Dem women.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party has declared itself to have "learnt its lessons" and will start to make positive moves to ensure that more women candidates are selected. Theresa May, the Tory spokeswoman on women, plans to do this by stressing to constituency associations the importance of "female skills" such as "listening".

Finally, and most significantly, Labour is in something of a flap about women as well. While the party stormed into the lead at the last election with the historic return of no less than 101 female MPs, it is generally accepted that next time around this figure will fall.

Joan Ruddock, who shares with quite a number of Labour women the less than distinctive distinction of being a former minister for women, is leading a rearguard action to curb such calamity. She wants to put a stop to the "jobs for the boys" culture in the Labour Party, which she says has meant that "favoured sons" are being lined up for 20 plum seats at the next election. At the same time, many of the most marginal seats are held by women, and are likely to be lost at the next election.

Her solution is to return to all-women shortlists, which were knocked on the head as a Labour technique for increasing the number of women MPs when they were declared illegal in a challenge under the Sex Discrimination Act at an industrial tribunal in 1997.

So there we have it. Three parties, all in agreement that they really must do more to get women into Parliament. But, to me, this seems rather similar to agreeing to get women into space, then noticing that there isn't any air to breathe out there.

For adding further to Labour's tarnished image as a party that is "listening to women" is the news that no less than six women Labour MPs, most of them with young children, have said that they intend to stand down at the next election. With the exception of Judith Church, MP for Dagenham, all have insisted on remaining anonymous until they have informed their local parties.

Their complaints though, are familiar ones. They find that the hours they have to work as MPs are utterly opposed to their roles within their families. Further, there is no acknowledgement of such clashes within the system. There are no creche facilities for babies or even decent care for older children. They expected this to change, but it has not.

Now, I do think that this is disgraceful, etc, etc, but at the same time I find that the way in which all of these angry women have tackled this problem to be sadly uninspiring, and perhaps indicative of how much women have been swallowed by the crushing expectation that they deal with all problems in the time-honoured ways of the House.

For while there is fairly widespread disgruntlement about this situation, the latest response has been to gather a petition. I thought that the public was supposed to gather petitions and hand them to MPs. The idea that you get to be an MP and then spend your time putting together petitions to give to other MPs is pretty depressing.

The petition in question has been organised by Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, and has been signed by 130 Labour members, men and women. She describes this as being "inundated by support" but the figure strikes me as rather woeful. The petition, quite rightly, calls for urgent modernisation of the Commons, and will be presented to the Modernisation Select Committee this week.

Again, quite rightly, Ms Campbell points out that "when the Government is pressing family-friendly working practices with employers, it ought to be taking a lead and not be seen lagging behind in the modernisation of the Commons' own practices". Harriet Harman lends her support to the same argument, saying that the Government's failure to bring about radical reform is "inconsistent".

Sure enough, it is. And so are the weasel words of the Blairites, who insist that the problem is a lack of cross-party consensus on altering Commons procedure. Why is there a lack of "cross-party consensus" when all of the parties for once seem agreed on something - that there is a woeful lack of women in the Commons? But the awful fact is that there also seems to be a woeful lack of willingness or ability on the part of women in Parliament to get things done.

What have all these 101 Labour women been doing for all these years they have been in the Commons complaining? I thought the idea was that women would have different approaches to problem-solving and new ways of forcing change. Why is it that all of these people, who feel that they have the right qualities for changing the world, can't even effect a change in their own working environment?

It has been obvious for ages that the Cabinet is not going to leap into changing the working hours of the House. But why is it that petitions have been taken up as a way of forcing change? Are the Labour women MPs really just as powerless as the rest of us when it comes to challenging their employers? How can it be that 101 women, who supposedly have enormous dynamism and organisational skills, can't just organise a creche for themselves?

Why have they never simply commandeered an office, hired some nannies and shovelled in a few toys? Why have they never stood up and said to us, their electorate: "We can do it, and you can do it. Get your employer to take notice. Get your employer to see that workplace creches can work."

Why can't they see that this simple thing would be a far better way of challenging traditional working practices from within, than bleating on forever about how hard it is and how terribly slowly things change? Why can't they see that people would feel inspired by such independent and pro-active problem solving, instead of irritated by the spirit of curmudgeonly co-option into the prevailing culture? Why can't these women just get together and create one tiny little facility within the Commons which would be helpful and inspirational to others, instead of making petitions?

No doubt it's because it is really hard to find any space at all in the Palace of Westminster, let alone a space for children to run about. Or that such undertakings need funding, and there are no proper channels for raising it. Or that the work of MPs is too important for them to spend time organising community projects, even for themselves.

Or maybe the truth is that, while banging on about the lack of a creche sounds good, the fact is that none of them actually want one anyway.

Whatever the reason, I say shame on them all. Where there is a will there's a way. If these women can't even organise what they consider to be appropriate childcare for themselves, then how the hell are they going to deliver it to those they wish to vote for them? If they're just paying lip-service to an idea that actually is not at all practical for them, then that is even worse.

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