The well-behaved get office

Observations on Labour women MPs

Ever since Labour's women entered the Commons in such large numbers in 1997, people have been making digs at them - first about their appearance, then about their devotion to the party line, and most recently about their overall lack of achievement.

Do the charges stand up? No comment on the first charge, but it is certainly true that Labour's back-bench women are less rebellious than the men. Of those in the 1997 intake, 65 per cent of the women defied the whip during this parliament's first two sessions against 86 per cent of the men. This difference was especially sharp over Iraq, where 61 per cent of the men rebelled against only 39 per cent of the women, even though female voters were much more opposed to the invasion than men. The women's critics would say this shows they are second-class MPs, unable to stand up to the whips. The women and their supporters would see it as proof of a different approach to politics: more consensual, less macho, less confrontational.

What about the alleged lack of achievement? In fact, the women have been more likely to get into government. By the end of the second session of the 2001 parliament, 62 per cent of the women elected in 1997 (and still in the Commons) had achieved a government position. The figure for the men was 55 per cent.

And despite the claims that those selected from all-women shortlists were of poor quality, there was no difference between their performance and that of women selected from open lists.

But did the women owe their promotions to loyalty? The figures suggest they did. Although the government occasionally promotes MPs who have voted against the party line (as long as they have not done so repeatedly), an MP's chances of making it into government are significantly reduced if he or she has defied the whips even once.

Of the new male MPs who did not defy the whip during the 1997 parliament, 75 per cent had made it into government by November 2003. The equivalent figure for female loyalists was 68 per cent. For those who defied the whips at least once during the 1997 parliament, the rates of promotion by November 2003 were 18 per cent (men) and 14 per cent (women).

In other words, the large majority of loyalists get into the government while the large majority of rebels stay on the back benches. But loyalist women do slightly less well than loyalist men and rebel women slightly less well than rebel men.

None of these differences is huge, but they are consistent. It could be merely coincidental - the happy by-product of a less macho style of politics. Or it could be more instrumental - a deliberate strategy by the women to hold their tongues so that they get into government. And if the latter, the motivation could just be a selfish desire for office or something more altruistic: a belief that they will be able to influence policy in a pro-women direction only if they can get into government. But whatever the explanations, there is no doubt about the outcome. Disproportionate loyalty has generated disproportionate office.

Philip Cowley teaches politics at the University of Nottingham, and runs