In New Zealand they know how to appreciate female politicians

Westminster should look south to the land with a feminist PM and top portfolios held by women
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mo Mowlam was undoubtedly a Labour superstar. More popular with the voters than any other politician. Admired by women everywhere for her bravery and her plain speaking. Top of every feminist's list of approved role models.

Mo Mowlam was undoubtedly a Labour superstar. More popular with the voters than any other politician. Admired by women everywhere for her bravery and her plain speaking. Top of every feminist's list of approved role models.

Yet when Mowlam announced last week that she will quit politics at the next election, 100 female Labour MPs turned away in silence. Not a word from Baroness Jay, the Minister for Women, or her representative in the elected classes, Tessa Jowell. No praise, no regrets, from cabinet colleagues Clare Short, Margaret Beckett or Ann Taylor.

Only Helen Jackson, who had been Mo Mowlam's parliamentary private secretary in Northern Ireland and now works for Peter Mandelson, and the backbencher Joan Ruddock (notable as the minister for women who worked without pay and then got sacked for her troubles) went public and muttered a few meaningless platitudes on BBC's Newsnight.

And even if we can understand why senior women felt they needed to put loyalty to their leader before the demise of their friends, what happened to the young shooting stars who came in at the last election? They knew that Mowlam, the party's feminist-in-chief, had fought in the front line for the all-women shortlists which had given many of them their chance. None of them spoke up for Mo, because every quietly ambitious one of them knows that this Labour government is ruled and run by a small group of men who don't really feel comfortable with women, and don't want them to appear in their inner circle.

Look at the evidence. There are no women running big spending departments; those in the Cabinet (with the exception of Mo) are Blair's housekeeping squad. Beckett and Taylor run the Commons, Baroness Jay does the same in the Lords. Clare Short is well away from policy-making, looking after International Development. Any award for the top feminist MP after Mo's departure would have to go to Gordon Brown.

In its 1997 landslide victory, Labour doubled the number of women in the House of Commons overnight. Feminists were jubilant. Never mind that the 101 female MPs were immediately dubbed Blair's Babes by the Daily Mail, amid comments about their legs and their clothes. Women were convinced that change was in the air.

And that's more or less where it has stayed. There has been no emergence of guerrilla girls fighting for better deals for women voters or for the feminisation of Parliament. Labour women MPs have remained like women through the centuries - loyal, hard-working, and devoted to carrying out the policies devised by the men in charge.

In Politics Review, Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart revealed that the most striking feature of the women who were elected in 1997 is that they are less likely to rebel against their leaders than any other group in the Labour Party. Only 11 per cent of newly elected women rebelled in the first two sessions of this parliament, compared with 24 per cent of the newly elected men. Some of the women excused themselves on the grounds that they are better at behind-the-scenes lobbying than the men and get their concerns across to ministers in a less macho way.

Labour's spokesmen, while paying lip service to the needs and rights of women, have certainly made more noise and been more concerned about the rights of blacks and gays. You get the idea that with this government it's pretty unfashionable to mention women at all. "Family-friendly policies" is the acceptable phrase.

This parliament looks overwhelmingly male, and male power becomes increasingly obvious on TV news programmes featuring male politicians who discuss the big political issues of the day. (Ann Widdecombe does not count. Like Margaret Thatcher she is not a feminist and specialises in the "more balls than the boys" approach.)

But this doesn't mean it's all over for the girls. Women MPs are not going to vanish from the Commons at the next election. Numbers may drop, but voters like women MPs, whatever their party. Once a party has fielded a female MP another is often welcome. Alice Mahon followed Shirley Summerskill in Halifax. Claire Curtis-Thomas has followed Shirley Williams in Crosby.

Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, after a poor start, are desperate to get more female candidates in winnable seats. But it is no use electing more women if their principal role at Westminster is to be loyal, hard-working servants of tiny teams of male leaders.

In June I visited New Zealand where Labour has been in power since last October. I arrived in Wellington just as the party was hit by its first sex scandal. Dover Samuels, the cabinet minister in charge of Maori affairs, had been accused of having sex with an under-age girl who had an abortion.

The Prime Minister suspended Mr Samuels while an investigation was held. The local paper reported that the Prime Minister was in talks with the Attorney General, the Cabinet Secretary and the Chief Justice. Nothing unusual about that until you realise that the Prime Minister is Helen Clark, the Attorney General is Margaret Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary is Marie Shroff and the Chief Justice is Sian Elias.

The number of women at the top in New Zealand politics has grown steadily over the past decade. The last Prime Minister (now Leader of the Opposition) is a woman, Jenny Shipley. A new Governor General was announced last week - Dame Sylvia Cartwright. Of course, New Zealand is a small country where change happens quickly, and Helen Clark is a feminist and 13,000 miles to the left of Tony Blair. But the most important difference is that in New Zealand women get together, work in groups and promote each other.

It doesn't happen here, and it needs to. Politics is about power. This government gives way to powerful pressure. Pensions are to go up because pensioners protested. The fuel escalator was dropped after pressure from hauliers. The climate change levy has been diluted after pressure from big business. For three years the women at Westminster had the power of high numbers and a high profile. But they didn't get together to assert their power because they didn't want to embarrass the Government or lose the chance of promotion. Mo Mowlam, who could have led them, and started a bit of protest after she was replaced by Mandelson in Northern Ireland, went off in a sulk.

The women were easy to fob off. One in three of them have hack ministerial jobs compared with one in four of their male colleagues. But the men are in the powerful jobs while most women are under secretaries or unpaid parliamentary private secretaries. There are promises of more high-profile jobs after the election: this year, next year, whenever it pleases the men at the top. But they'll be jobs for women loyalists. There'll be no room for free spirits such as Mo.

If women at Westminster want to feminise the power circle, protest is the only solution, and politics is like sex. Women MPs need to tell Tony Blair loudly and clearly what will make them happy, and withhold co-operation until they get it.

* Linda McDougall produced the Channel 4 documentaries 'The Rise and Fall of Mo Mowlam' and 'Westminster Women'. She is currently writing a biography of Cherie Booth.