Leading article: Are Blair's babes dumb?

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The Independent Online
It all seems like a dream now, that soft-focus photocall when 101 "Blair Babes" poured into Parliament Square in an array of vibrant powersuits. Exactly one week after the election, the political future looked decidedly female. There was the brand new Ministry for Women. There were signs that the Commons hairdressing salon would be going unisex, and that the anachronistic shooting gallery, long the preserve of Westminster's most traditional old gents, would have to make way for a creche. At the time, Blair's Babes seemed a bit of joke. We knew they weren't really babes, being neither decorative nor childish, but rather intelligent, democractically-elected representatives who would change Westminster for the better and make it more accountable to at least 50 per cent of the population.

It is with great disappointment that we have watched this dream disintegrate while the Ministry for Women watches from the sidelines. The women- friendly government has never materialised, in the same way it never emerged under Margaret Thatcher, despite the hopes of many Tory women. For, despite the fuchsia suits and the child-care-for-all soundbites, this government has played more of a role in undermining women's rights than in enhancing them. First came the benefit cuts. The term "single mother", made inherently pejorative by the Conservatives, was replaced by "a new deal for lone parents". But while the rhetoric brightened, the policy toughened as thinking the unthinkable about welfare became doing the unthinkable. It is right that there are many lone parents who want to work, but the essence of the new deal is that all those without independent incomes will be pushed towards work, regardless of whether they would prefer to look after their children. It is right that the welfare state, overburdened as it is, should be re-examined - but no one expected a Labour government to make the poorer section of society take on that burden. We waited for the Ministry for Women to rebel, and heard nothing but ominous silence. Some MPs did vote against the Government at the second opportunity, but it was a ripple, not a revolution.

Then came hints that means-testing might be applied to child benefits. It may well be illogical for a woman earning a substantial salary to draw child benefit at taxpayers' expense, but increased taxation might have been a better testimony to the desire for equality than removing what for many women has formed the sole source of income for generations. Meanwhile, women's financial independence is further threatened by the news that couple's salaries may now be considered as joint for taxation. Clearly, two salaries at, say, pounds 18,000 per year will pay less tax than one salary of pounds 36,000. But if increased taxation is the aim, why can't the Government increase income tax?

The news that there are moves to make women pay for the contraceptive pill is a further blow, again greeted by silence from their ministry. Women could benefit from less use of the Pill over long periods of time for health reasons, but educating them about the risks would surely be more effective than charging prohibitive sums of money. And the policy has no hope of saving the taxpayer a penny. At a stroke the move risks increasing the number of single mothers - that very group which is supposedly so dependent on state benefits - and pushing up the number of abortions with increased costs to the NHS. Furthermore, free and available contraception for all has a symbolic importance as a premise based in gaining control for women over their reproductive rights, and thus an essential element towards equality for women. But then Labour has, of course, already taught us that our emotional attachment to symbols must be sacrificed in return for hard choices. The electorate has the right to feel betrayed by those women who smiled so winningly for the cameras in May. Perhaps they do not feel that the fact of their gender makes them any more accountable to British women than their male counterparts. But in which case they should not have set themselves up as a power-suited taskforce ready to fight for equality. Mr Blair should remember that his appeal to women voters far outweighed his appeal to male voters and the babes should prove themselves serious politicians by reminding him of this debt. Talk of "new deals" and "hard choices" will not suffice. If Westminster's male politicians will not stand up for equality then it must fall to the apparently toothless Ministry for Women to bite back.