More talent, more hostility

To the tabloids they're `Blair's babes' - but women MPs have real skills to offer, says Fran Abrams
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The Independent Online
Even the press rat-pack agreed it was a glorious sight: 101 Labour women MPs, posing ecstatically with the Prime Minister in the sunshine, days after their victory.

But as the party celebrated not only its biggest landslide but also the election of the largest ever body of women to the house, the shadows were already beginning to gather. Now the newcomers are realising that their arrival in Westminster is only the beginning of their battle for full membership of the political elite.

These women have led councils, run trades unions, launched national magazines and directed think-tanks. Among them are two former mayors - Claire Ward, the member for Watford, and Laura Moffatt (Crawley) and Scotland's most senior woman QC, Lynda Clark. Neil Kinnock's former press secretary, Patricia Hewitt, is the member for Leicester East and the former head of John Prescott's office, Rosie Winterton, sits for Doncaster Central. Others have worked as teachers, lawyers, economists, social workers and nurses.

In the euphoria that swept through Labour after 1 May, it was possible to believe that these talents and skills would be fully recognised. To hope, at least, that they would not end by being corralled into the tight parliamentary pigeonholes women occupied in the past.

(Ann Widdecombe, the former Home Office minister, will hardly be surprised to hear that she is placed by many men around Westminster in the "sad, ugly spinster" category, though Dawn Primarolo, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and Baroness Symons, Foreign Office minister, might be startled to learn that they are regarded in the press gallery and elsewhere as "babes".)

The eyes of the world's media have been turned upon "Blair's Babes" and not all of the attention has been friendly. First Ann Keen, the new Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth, came to The Independent with a story about how she had been reunited with her adopted son. She had felt forced to go public because of repeated phone calls on behalf of a tabloid newspaper.

On the same day, The Sun's editor, Stuart Higgins, was talking about the phone-in line his paper had opened on the new Labour women. It had asked: "Did you go to school with a Blair Lady?" and had elicited only one call. But the question he really wanted to ask, he said, was: "Did you have a fling with a Blair babe?" "We have been actively trying to dig up sleaze on Labour for 17 years. The fact is, there wasn't any," he explained ruefully.

His colleagues continue to dig, though. One woman fighting a marginal Conservative seat discovered that she had been followed for weeks by reporters working for a tabloid newspaper. She thought she was going to be the victim of a fabricated gay smear. "I only found out when I was phoned by one of my opponents who had been approached and asked if it was true that I was a lesbian," she said. "They had been sitting outside my house watching who went in or out."

But even if it had been true, what was the story going to achieve? Was the paper hoping to expose a coven of superdykes who were planning to sweep through the palace of Westminster? Was Labour's stance on family values to be questioned on the strength of one woman's sexual preferences? Or would the effect have been simply to have ended the career of someone who had spent years building an impressive public profile?

Others have similar tales. One says she faced repeated questioning about why her daughter had a different surname. The straightforward answer was that although she was married she had not chosen to take her husband's name. But would single motherhood really have rendered her unfit to be an MP? Another single thirty-something felt compelled to begin every speech during the election campaign with the words: "For those of you who are interested, no I'm not married and I don't have any children. For those of you who are really interested, that's because no one has ever asked me."

Another of Labour's new MPs was branded by her female Tory opponent as having "no commitment to family life" after she revealed that she wanted children but could not have them because she was infertile.

That unhealthy interest misses the point, and allows the nation to blind itself to the fact that those women have much, much more to offer.

When Mo Mowlam became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, for example, what did the press want to know? Was it interested in how she was going to restart the peace process or was it really more keen to talk about how she had put on weight as a result of treatment for a brain tumour?

That phenomenon is not an entirely pointless one, of course, nor is it surprising. As ever, the conservative forces in politics are not going to go down without a fight. If those women can be belittled, reduced to nothing more than a gaggle of luscious lovelies and sad fattos, they will have been reduced to easily containable categories. If that happens, the huge wave of new women MPs who have already changed dramatically the atmosphere in the House of Commons will have been diminished in their power to effect change beyond it.

Instead of being a force for reform and renewal, they will become simply a gang of girls who can safely be ignored.

If that is allowed to happen, British politics will remain an intrinsically male domain, a male domain with a little more colour, perhaps - a place where there are some welcome distractions from the sea of grey that still dominates the scene. But a place where all the old conventions and prejudices can continue to hold sway. And who needs that?