Take a Bow, Blair

When Tony Blair was first elected Britain's prime minister in May 1997, a record 120 women MPs accompanied him into Parliament. Of these, 101 belonged to the Labour government.

Ten years on - Blair demitted office at the end of June (2007) to make way for successor Gordon Brown - the number of women MPs has reached 126 out of a 646-member Parliament. However, the women still represent less than 20 per cent of the total and there has been heated debate on how to ensure they are more adequately represented.

On the positive side, Blair's government achieved a raft of women-friendly legislation, including extended maternity leave, flexible working hours, better child-care and attempts to narrow the pay gap between men and women. 

The former prime minister's tenure also saw the creation of the post of Minister for Women, with the responsibility for improving the position of women to the benefit of society in general, and for promoting equality for all disadvantaged groups.

"It's very much a half-made revolution... it will take a generation or more," said influential columnist Polly Toynbee in a debate on BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour. However, Toynbee added that the number of women in Blair's government had already "changed the agenda".

Under Brown's administration so far, the prospects for further progress have appeared mixed. Experienced female ministers left the Cabinet shortly after he took over the administration at the end of June, although some others were given senior appointments. Jacqui Smith was made the first woman Home Secretary, with her responsibilities including national security.

Also, the Labour party membership elected a woman, Harriet Harman - former justice minister and a tireless campaigner for equality - to be the Deputy Leader of the party. However, she was not given the position of Deputy Prime Minister, which many had thought went with the role. That job remains vacant.

Britain's left-leaning newspaper, 'The Guardian', noted: "Mr Brown has denied the country its first female Deputy Prime Minister by shuffling her off to become the Labour party chair instead". Harman was also appointed Leader of the House of Commons and Minister for Women.

The London-based Fawcett Society - named after the suffragette Millicent Fawcett who campaigned for women's right to vote - is striving to ensure there is a greater number of women in politics. It acknowledges that though a great deal has been done, there is still much to do, especially to bring about a real shift in attitudes. 

"When Labour women MPs crowded around the youthful, smiling Tony Blair on May 2, 1997, it felt like a silent promise to half the electorate which had previously been overlooked. These feisty women would ensure that from now on things would be different - both in style and substance. We've been disappointed in style; but in substance, there have been real gains for women," said Katherine Rake, Director, Fawcett Society.

"Women voters will be crucial to the next election," she continued. "Now we need our leaders ... to have the guts to declare that equality between women and men is core to their beliefs - not an add-on to mention now and again in the hope of impressing women voters. We need that silent promise to be said out loud and this time they've really got to mean it."

Bringing about a profound difference in style would be vital to improving many women's experience of politics. The Guardian's sister Sunday paper, 'The Observer', interviewed 10 women MPs about their experience of government and presented a bleak picture of sexism, alcoholism, bullying and late nights away from their families that would put many women off seeking high political office.

Some of those interviewed were more positive than others, but the one point on which all agreed was that they disliked the grandstanding they considered the men indulged in. Barbara Follett, MP for Stevenage (north of London), who has been made Minister for Women and Equalities under Brown, summed up the culture of politics: "It's male. It's two swords apart, each man shouting at the other. It's the football-match approach."

The press is to blame as much as Parliament for perpetuating sexist attitudes. It coined the derogatory phrase "Blair babes" for Blair's women MPs and shortly after the hustings began in May for the Deputy Leadership contest, it reduced the policy differences between the two women candidates - Harman and then-party chairman Hazel Blears - to "the battle of the handbags". Following a remark by Harman that one shouldn't aspire to live in a society where some people spent '10,000 on a handbag and others have very little to spend, the press revealed that Blears had splashed out "around '250" on a handbag, while Harman never paid more than '50 on the accessory.

It is barely reported that Harman had stated her determination to put more serious women's issues at the heart of politics. "I would make sure women's issues are not on the outside, but right at the centre of government," she said.

Those issues will only really be at the centre and the chauvinism ended by getting many more women into Parliament. The Fawcett Society has calculated that, at the current rate of change, it will take Labour, which has 97 women MPs, around 20 years to get 50-50 women and men; the opposition Conservatives, with only 17 women MPs, would need around 400 years to achieve equal representation.

Evidence collected internationally has shown the only reliable way to increase significantly the number of women representatives is through positive action, such as all-women shortlists and quotas, the Fawcett Society said.

Labour has already selected candidates from all-women shortlists and Conservative leader David Cameron has introduced some changes to his party's selection system. The society wants all parties to follow suit and ideally to choose women candidates for 50 per cent of winnable seats. "All parties need to use equality guarantees of some kind," the society said in a statement. "Without this, it will just take too long for Parliament to look representative."  


More by :  Barbara Lewis

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