Welcome to `Blair's Babes' but the struggle goes on

Labour has 101 women in Parliament thanks to feminist drive, but what will they do for their worse-off sisters
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The Independent Online
This is an historic occasion indeed! Margaret Beckett has been called a babe. There she is down at the front of that terrific picture of Tony Blair surrounded by all the New Labour women on the steps of Church House. The Daily Mail chose to headline this image "Blair's Babes". Matthew Parris commented somewhat archly: "So many purple suits! So much hairspray!" It all reminded me of that picture of Hugh Hefner surrounded by his Playboy Bunnies, except of course that these women are not bunnies, they are, say it again, MPs.

The sudden visibility of women is so enchanting, one is inclined to forget that only two weeks ago women were virtually invisible in the election campaign. Indeed, now that we are in the mood, we can forgive and forget a lot of things if we really try, just like Tony Blair forgot to tell Harriet Harman that she was in fact ... er, Minister for Women. We can forget that Roy Hattersley called women-only shortlists "a silly idea", that Blair himself described the scheme as "not ideal at all". We can forget the battles that Clare Short had when she was Spokesperson for Women. We can forget the promise of a separate and properly funded Ministry for Women.

Now that new era has begun and New Labour flaunts its femininity, perhaps these things may be eminently forgettable. We just don't need to worry our pretty heads about positive discrimination anymore. Look how much better Labour is than the Tories with their unlucky 13 female MPs. Anyway, affirmative action, that offensive Americanised phrase, smacks of political correctness, of old-fashioned feminism, of a bygone era of wimmin, of Big Sister watching every move.

It is easy enough to say that things would have got better all by themselves. After all, this is the age of Girl Power, of a culture in which girls are outperforming boys at every level. In some classes and in some situations this is certainly true. The earnings gap between young male and female professionals is closing. Yet at both the top end and bottom end of society, the gender gap is as wide as it ever was. Only 3 per cent of company directors are female, and at the other end of the scale the impoverishment of single parents means thousands of women and children are living in appalling circumstances.

The idea of separate women's issues has become almost meaningless, but if anything is a women's issue, it is the minimum wage that looks like being set at a lower level than has previously been discussed. Had the Minister for Women's job not been tacked on to Harriet Harman's already bulging portfolio, it is possible to imagine that some of the Labour Party's commitments to women might be delivered. Of course none of these commitments were in the Labour party pledges, so no actual promises will be broken. None the less, both those within and without the party have expectations about what a Labour government will actually do for us.

Despite the photo-opportunities, less than a quarter of the new intake are women. So how many of these were propelled into power through the despised all-women shortlists? Less than a third. If we say that perhaps half of these women might have got through anyway, we are talking perhaps about 15 women who benefited from this quota system. Yet what these shortlists did was raise the profile of women in the party, provoking a debate that meant a sluggish and smug institution became more self-aware. Barbara Follett's powerful argument at the time was that without doing anything, nothing would change. As she reminded us, Labour returned the same number of women to Parliament in 1987 as it did in 1945. Blair, in one sense, was right to say that the shortlists were not ideal, but then the alternative was doing nothing and ending up like the Tory Party.

Positive discrimination in favour of women, as we have seen in other countries, often means that its beneficiaries are defensive. It also means a male backlash with men cast as the new victims. Yet it is a means to an end; and at conference last year, Labour backed a motion calling for a target of 50 per cent female MPs in the next 10 years. It was proposed by Clare Short, who described it correctly as the "biggest modernisation of all". Even Tories were forced to comment on the number of bright young women at conference, Boris Johnson registering much Hot Totty on his own personal Tottymeter.

And now that the Totty is on display, giggling in the corridors of power and presumably having to queue to get into the Ladies, they remain an unknown quantity. The expression "transitional women" is being bandied about. It applies to the Harmans and the Jowells, the women who were already considered acceptable by the boys.

There is nothing transitional about the new mob of women, their number makes them a solid presence. Some of them even wear normal clothes instead of those peculiar power suits.

What with a handful of openly gay MPs, someone in a wheel-chair, a few more black faces, Parliament is getting nearer to representing a cross- section of the population. Nearer but not near enough.

In the flush of victory it is easy to forget that. Just as it easy to overlook the fact that those 101 female MPs were not delivered by Mr. Blair's hand alone. They were delivered by a combination of cultural change - the electorate has less of a problem in voting for a women than ever before - and political activism: a conscious, stubborn and explicitly feminist drive towards equal representation. The irony, not so gentle, is that at a time when such feminist tactics are referred to as "so Seventies", as completely out of touch and out of date, they have produced such a dramatic change in the House of Commons.

For the Tories this is yet another problem that they must deal with if they want to reconstitute themselves as a serious party. At a grassroots level they need to persuade their female supporters to vote for women instead of more ghastly Tory Boys. For the Conservatives to impose any sort of quota system is almost inconceivable, but without one it is difficult to see how any sort of progress will be made.

However, while New Labour congratulates itself on its landslide and its new feminised culture, it should also remember its irritating little anthem "Things can only better ..." While we are looking forward, glance backward over New Labour's shoulder and you will see the struggle it has been to produce this profound shift in its own culture. Being a politician means never having to say you are sorry and I don't expect Blair to be any different; but he cannot be allowed to take all the credit here. At long last the party has delivered up some women. The question now is this: what can the Government deliver for all women?