Profile: A militant moderate: Sue Slipman: The champion of the single parent is in need of a new challenge, says Geraldine Bedell

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The Independent Online
NOT SO long ago - no more than 20 years or so - an unmarried mother was a woman in disgrace. She was in no position to make demands of her child's father, and the child was illegitimate and had even fewer claims. It is quite different now: the unmarried mother and child have been transformed into the one-parent family; the Child Support Agency (CSA) pursues absent fathers for support; and the legal distinction between children of married and unmarried parents has been abolished. A surprising amount of this has happened since 1985, when Sue Slipman took over the National Council For One-Parent Families.

Last week, Slipman - once the first woman president of the National Union of Students (NUS), and a Communist - collected an OBE from Buckingham Palace. Her organisation published a report, widely covered in the press, marking the first year of the CSA, and suggesting another side to the story of hapless fathers pursued to the point of suicide. And she appeared before the Broadcasting Complaints Commission to argue that Panorama had damaged lone parents by suggesting that large numbers of women were getting pregnant to get benefits and housing.

Since John Redwood said something not dissimilar in Cardiff last year, Slipman has led the resistance to what seemed, for a while, a concerted government campaign to stigmatise single parents. If the campaign has now quietly been dropped, it is partly because Slipman's reasonable voice won the argument. Ministers 'complain about vandals,' she is fond of pointing out, 'but they never seem to ask themselves: why would any woman in her right mind want to take one home with her?'

Slipman is small and pretty, with a perky haircut and a clear, unstrident voice. She speaks in complete paragraphs, and when she has made her point, she stops. She is funny, and likeable, and has friends and admirers across the political spectrum. But in the world of the pressure group, she is not always admired, because she has no qualms about whom she works with if it gets things done. 'Too much of the voluntary sector still approaches issues as if the answer to everything were a change of government,' she says. 'You have to take a long-term view, and look to the incremental changes that can be made.'

When she arrived, the National Council for One-Parent Families was in the grip of zealots who thought of it chiefly as a political platform for themselves. On her first day in the job, one of her managers asked about taking the banner on a miners' demonstration. 'A banner]' she cries now in exasperation. 'What were we supposed to be, the Amalgamated Union of Childbearers? Why did we need a banner?' She banished the banner, introduced targets and business plans and, after three years, sacked a lot of people.

The big question now is what she will do next. She has occupied the director's desk in the national council's scruffy north London office for seven years, and made a vast difference to the perception of one-parent families. In terms of size, her organisation is very much third division; in terms of public profile, it is first division. It was instrumental in pushing through the Family Law Reform Act, which removed the stigma of illegitimacy; in getting childcare allowance for those on family credit, and in setting up the CSA.

She applied to become chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). (It was said that she was effectively told she'd got it, and then John Major ruled her out.) When the job went instead to the relatively unknown Kamlesh Bahl, her friends were furious. Slipman fought two elections in the 1980s, but that was for the SDP, and she no longer has a party. Any job that would interest her would have to combine ample opportunity to campaign against discrimination, and plentiful access to power. Her supporters worry that there are very few jobs big enough to accommodate her.

SUE Slipman was born in Brixton in August 1949; her father was (at various times) an ice-cream salesman, pie and mash shop proprietor, and taxi driver. She was expelled from Stockwell Manor Comprehensive for organising a camping trip. It involved sending home a letter on school paper stating that she and her friends were going on a field trip. They got very wet (they had no tents), were discovered, and were only eventually allowed back to do A-levels. She got the best results the school had ever had, and 'had to sit there in assembly while the headmaster said what a wonderful influence I was and everyone sniggered'.

She got a university place at St David's, Lampeter, and joined the Communist Party in her first year. After a First in English, she went on to Leeds to specialise in Oliver Goldsmith, and quickly got sucked into student politics. 'There wasn't much student politics in Lampeter: once you'd given out a hundred leaflets, there were only sheep to give them to.' This was the early Seventies, and the Eurocommunists, as they were to become, had embarked on revisionism. 'I was sent into student politics to get rid of the Stalinists who dominated the NUS,' she says now. She was elected to the executive, became full-time secretary for two years, and then president.

By the time she was getting press coverage as the woman- Communist-NUS-president, she was already giving up on Communism. 'I stopped defining myself as someone on the left in 1979, but by 1976 I could see that market solutions were soon going to be the only viable ones. When Thatcher was elected, I navely thought that insititutions on the left would change.' She joined the National Union of Public Employees (Nupe) as a negotiator in 1979, thinking 'that as the union most responsible for the mayhem, it would be particularly open to change'. She was wrong, and the die-hards sent Rodney Bickerstaffe, its leader, a petition demanding her dismissal. The union's policy was to obstruct competitive tendering; hers was to negotiate. She won many contracts for her members as a result.

In 1981, she became a founder- member of the SDP, and was instantly distrusted both by the political neophytes, who couldn't understand how anyone could be a Communist, and the right-wing defectors from the Labour Party, who were bruised by battles with Militant. To outsiders, the jump from Communism to the SDP may look eccentric, although her friend Polly Toynbee says that this is to misunderstand the nature of student politics, in which the Labour Party often seemed a deal-doing, smoke-filled-rooms sort of organisation, whereas the Communists seemed to have most of the intellectual rigour, and were often, anyway, in alliance with the Conservatives. Slipman's politics are in fact consistent: Toynbee describes her as 'militantly moderate,' someone who is chiefly interested in getting things done. She has always opposed discrimination (an attitude she ascribes partly to her Jewishness) and feminism has been hugely important to her - though she was very impatient of lesbian separatists.

In 1983, she fought Basildon for the SDP, winning 27 per cent of the vote and letting in the Tory David Amess. ('They had a poster saying, 'Vote A mess for Basildon,' ' she says, 'and that's what they got.') In 1987, she fought Hayes and Harlington against Terry Dicks, before finally relinquishing her hopes of getting to Westminster.

She applied for her current job three times. The first time she was only just out of the NUS, and wasn't even interviewed; the second she didn't get it 'largely on political grounds' - because she was a member of the SDP. Perhaps she will get the EOC job yet.

Six years ago, she became a single parent - 'an accident,' she says - 'although I'll have to stop saying that now he's getting older'. Gideon has severe asthma and has been in intensive care perhaps a dozen times. It may be a comment on the way she has handled this that he only remembers having been in hospital three times.

If anyone has a complaint about Slipman - other than the foolish one that she talks to people in power regardless of their politics - it is that she likes to be in charge. 'If she's going to play at all, she wants to be leader,' said one person who has observed her over a long period. 'She doesn't want to waste her time: she will say 'why have you sent these pygmies to see me?' ' says another.

She is an effective leader, however. Had she made it to Westminster, she would have been an unusually attractive politician, in all senses of the word. But there is no longer any party in which she can feel comfortable. She doesn't rule out voting Conservative (she may even have done so: she refuses to say); but her feminism, her background, and now 'back to basics' would preclude her ever joining. She retains a mistrust of Labour as too trade union-dominated and corporatist to offer a comfortable home. What she needs now is a job in which she can feel not comfortable, exactly, but challenged.

(Photograph omitted)