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Letter: Welfare for women

Sir: Whilst reading Patricia Hollis's informative new biography of Jennie Lee I was struck by some remarkable similarities with the current furore over Harriet Harman's attack on the benefits of lone parents, the vast majority of them women.

In 1931 the Labour government faced a mounting bill for benefits, caused by rising unemployment. Chancellor Philip Snowden insisted on financial orthodoxy and so the government decided to cut benefits to married women. The measure was defended in the Commons by Margaret Bondfield, a Cabinet minster who had built her career in the Labour Party through the women's trade union movement.

The proposal was bitterly attacked in the House by Jennie Lee and other women Labour MPs such as Eleanor Rathbone, Ellen Wilkinson and Cynthia Mosley. Not a single woman joined Margaret Bondfield in the lobby but the measure was voted through by the massed ranks of Labour backbenchers whom Jennie Lee later described as reacting on every occasion "like a load of wet cement. They would see nothing, do nothing, listen to nothing that had not first been given the seal of [Ramsay] Macdonald's approval".

Then there was just a handful of women Labour MPs, whereas now there are a hundred. I wonder how they will fare when put to a test of principle compared with their predecessors of sixty years ago.


Mossley, Lancashire