Vision for a one-eyed government

A House of Commons half-filled with women would be changed beyond recog nition `Emily's List women are given £1,000 each. For my candidacy I bought myself a 2 CV'
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Today, Emily's List celebrates its second anniversary - the American-derived effort to assist more Labour women into Parliament. It runs alongside the party's system of quotas in candidate selection.

Emily's List identifies four barriers. Culture - the overwhelmingly male ambience of politics. Confidence - women don't have the sheer effrontery of men politicians. Children - women have them and men don't. Cash - women have very little at their disposal.

Confidence does matter. I started out as a candidate for the Social Democratic Party in Lewisham East with deep misgivings and self-doubt. I fought hard to win but staved off panic attacks with the thought that victory was unlikely. At the time it was regarded as a target seat: I got 22 per cent on the day. Looking back now, I think of all the male candidates who never questioned whether they were good enough. They strutted their empty stuff, confident they were God's gift to democracy.

My own skirmish with politics taught me a lot about obstacles, without even getting within shouting distance of the House of Commons. Emily's List women are given £1,000 each. I do not know how they will spend it, but for my candidacy I bought myself a Citroen 2CV. Virginia Woolf never thought of the need for a car of one's own.

A supportive partner helps, too. The night I was selected my husband urged me to give up this folly immediately. The children would suffer, I would suffer, life would be hell for us all - and I feared he might be right.

There you have a principal reason why women politicians are thin on the ground. They lack support. Those who make it are often excessively grateful for a partner's tolerance, let alone backing. My husband wrote ruefully in his newspaper column about becoming the Denis Thatcher of his age, but he never really accepted my political life or set foot in Lewisham.

The SDP was better about promoting women than other parties had been. Even so, it was a struggle. At its launch with the Limehouse Declaration, I found myself among a gang of defecting MPs plotting the new future. "What about women?" I asked. They lookedat me in astonishment and one said: "Look love, we left the Labour Party to get away from that sort of nonsense." But we won the quotas that we wanted in the party constitution.

Small things, but you don't forget them. Like the time I had to make a platform speech at the party conference on the gas industry. The male colleague on the national committee who gave me the task said: "Don't worry, dear, you can always ask your husband." He knew about a lot of things, but not about the gas industry.

As for networking, one MP promised he could get me selected in the constituency next-door to his. The price turned out to be Nights of Passion in the North. (It was a hopeless seat, about as unattractive as him).

I record this ancient history because any woman who has ever been near the political process will recognise some of these elements. Once women arrive at the House of Commons, things get worse. Only 9 per cent of MPs are female and many of them complain that the place is about as welcoming as a rugby club changing room.

All parties say they want more women. But are the special measures necessary? The backlash against women's preference is gathering. The drastic quota system devised by Labour's annual conference demands that 50 per cent of winnable seats have women-only shortlists, and a lot of people do not like it. Grassroots rebellion may make it unsustainable and women selected by it may feel blighted. But those who worry that inferior women will be selected by quota should take a look at some of the men on the backbenches and ask themselves if "meritocracy" has done any better.

There are broader issues of principle involved here, bigger than the Labour Party and its election prospects. Why, anyway, do we need more women in politics? First, there is the Thatcher Question. Mrs Thatcher kicked away some part of the case for helping more women into politics when she won, won and won again without a leg-up from any women's quota. She went to war and won: so much for getting women into politics as peace-makers. She was tougher than any man, handbagging Cabinets full of them: so muchfor women's superior talent for negotiation and consensus. She cast a basilisk eye on anyone who suggested women needed special help.

To which I would reply that if hard cases make bad law, she was certainly a hard case. Then I would say that any one woman may be no different to any one man, but a House half-filled with women MPs would be changed beyond recognition in tone, and above all in its priorities.

This argument teeters on the edge of sexism. Are women equal to men or not? I would reply that children dominate mothers' lives even when there is childcare on hand. Mothers inhabit a different universe from men. I do not know if women are nicer or gentler or kinder, but they are obliged to live more rounded lives, closer to the heart of things. If Westminster politics seems increasingly remote from people's everyday concerns, the lack of women MPs explains a lot.

Then there is the Edmund Burke Problem. He told his constituents that he did not represent them, but the good of the whole realm. MPs are not supposed to be representatives of sectional, minority or geographical interests. Otherwise they would be selected proportionately according to social class, ethnic origin, occupation, disability or age (and we would send a lot of Scots and lawyers home).

MPs would be mandated to get their snouts in the trough in a mighty pork barrel contest. So why should women be treated differently? In other words, what do we want more women in power for? Is it just an equal opportunities plea for women with political ambition? Or would the country be governed differently by women? I think it would.

But there is a category error in this argument. Women are not a "group". They are us: nation, society, interwoven inextricably into every section of the whole; wives, mothers and daughters. Democracy is diminished by the absence of women from the chamber. Without them, government is one-eyed. One example is how the real lives of women clash head-on with Treasury economic orthodoxy, and a social benefits system based still on man-as-breadwinner assumptions.

Since sexual liberation, many women are now likely to find themselves caring alone for their children at some point in their lives, but unable to support them financially since women's earnings are still only 75 per cent of men's. Most fall on social security, with growing numbers of children living in poverty and the taxpayer picking up the soaring bill.

Had there been 300 women - of all parties - in the House of Commons during the past decades, enough of them would have known that moralising about single mothers would not change a thing. They would have seen that it was economically essential that womenmust be trained to be equal breadwinners, paid the same as men, making sure they had childcare and care for their aged parents. They would have seen this crisis and avoided it.

There are many other examples. Public policy - the governance of Britain - would be better if there were more women MPs. Even die-hard misogynists these days think 9 per cent of women won't do.

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