Leading article: If only Blair's Babes would complain

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IT WAS a formidable sight a year ago as they gathered round Tony for that picture. Some were ingenues; some craven followers of the line; others first-rate additions to the legislature - in proportions no different from the new men in town. What the women had in common wasn't the "Babe" tag or the suits. What they offered was the promise of their numbers - here, at last, a critical mass, sufficient women members of the majority party to make a difference to the conduct of the House of Commons itself. Surely they, New Labourites, modernisers, would want to launch an assault on this temple of antediluvian working practices, stupid ceremony and the dullest of rituals. Yet they haven't. They have fitted in, kept mum, gone with the manly flow of things as they always were. Some women MPs have even become apologists for the system, its hours and its paraphernalia. Their capitulation ranks as one of the greatest disappointments of the Blair era.

That's why the Tribune attack on "whingers" is misplaced. If only they had complained and done something about it. Feminists! Then at least we might have seen them pressing unstoppably for alterations in the antiquated practices of the place. It's not a question of party loyalty. Women MPs elected in Blair's landslide were obliged to hew closely to the line on big- ticket issues such as taxing and spending - though it has been surprising how little back-up they have offered Harriet Harman in her battles over quintessentially "women's issues" such as childcare. What is so dismaying is that as a group, a formidable parliamentary phalanx, they have done nothing to force Ann Taylor's hand during her review of Commons' conduct. Why shouldn't debates take place when the rest of the country works; why no experiments with electronic voting, properly equipped offices, regional sittings (for select committees), new rules of debate? If the job takes an unacceptable toll on family life, change it.

Yet this ambiguity of attitude on the part of the women elected in 1997 is, unfortunately, all too symptomatic of this government's worst tendencies. It looks good. The rhetoric promises much. But when it comes to the sheer slog of institutional change, the will and the energy are just not there.

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