Women: still firmly in their place

More than three years after Labour's election, very little has changed; Westminster remains a man's

My elderly mother died in Cape Town on 30 January this year. Fifteen days earlier, she had left our London house without saying a proper goodbye to me because I was not allowed to leave the Commons. I would not have minded so much if the vote I was waiting for had actually happened. Or if the debate I was listening to had changed anything at all. As it is, I feel robbed of a final hour with my mother, for no good reason at all. When I called, she said that she understood. I can only hope she did. I still do not.

In my first two years in parliament, I generally got into bed after my husband had gone to sleep and got out of bed before he woke up. Our children are all grown and gone, but it hurts to think of how much of my granddaughters' young lives I have missed. But I still have time to change that. Worst of all are the things you cannot change.

Like Westminster culture. Here, change is firmly resisted by a powerful cabal, most of whose members are Conservative men. They like the way that the House of Commons meets for only 26 weeks a year and starts its day at 2.30pm. That allows them to keep the second job that about a third of MPs still have, and to wander into the chamber some time during ministerial questions and government statements. Experts in the "way things are done here", they are always jumping to their feet to make spurious points of order to get their names in Hansard and their criticisms on the record. They know just how to spin a debate out with elaborately insincere compliments, disingenuous diversions, rambling digressions and inaccurate accusations. They can, and do, spend hours talking about nothing at all - although not generally between 7.30pm and 10pm, when they eat and drink at one of the innumerable watering holes in and around Westminster.

They congratulate themselves on turning Prime Minister's Question Time into a cross between a kindergarten and a zoo. Practised hecklers, they are occasionally amusing, often rude and invariably irrelevant.

The culture they promote is competitive, confrontational, conservative, conformist and ceremonial - and at least two centuries out of step with the country they govern. Their attitudes to work, recreation, women, children, marriage, diet, exercise and technology are, at best, Victorian.

This Westminster culture is so pervasive that, unless you adapt, you have not a hope of changing it - let alone operating effectively. To get their points across in the chamber, women have to cultivate a confrontational, rubbishing style that emphasises differences and burns bridges instead of building them. To get their voices heard, they have to develop a loud, intimidating style that relies on constant interruption, not sympathetic listening. To get ahead, they have to put their career before their family.

Years ago, a popular member of the Labour Party told me that a female MP of our acquaintance would not win a place in the shadow cabinet elections because she was never in the bars and dining rooms of the House between 7pm and 9pm. "Tell her to get someone else to put her children to bed if she wants to get on," was his chilling, but accurate, advice.

Getting ahead in parliament involves a lot of sacrifice and self-control, not so much of principles, but of time, self-esteem, money and personal fulfilment. First and foremost, you have to learn to obey the ridiculous rules and keep the absurd hours without question. The system of patronage ensures that the disobedient do not get jobs or information. In fact, discipline is maintained by the controlled release of partial information about a completely unpredictable and opaque timetable that only a select few - the whips - know anything about at all. You quickly learn that planning ahead, like seeing your family, is an occasional luxury in the Westminster time-warp, which makes a mockery of our attempts to encourage our constituents to adopt a better work/life balance.

No wonder the best people keep out of politics, and that the worst enjoy the kind of limelight they don't deserve.

And no wonder so many Labour female MPs are disheartened and disillusioned - and four of them are standing down at the next general election. Why are relatively few women being selected in safe seats? Why is it that only one women in the Cabinet is in charge of a spending department and all the rest have what a male friend describes as "housekeeping" jobs? Why are only two of the 13 Downing Street advisers women? What is it with women and politics?

It is true that Britain, alone among the world's top four economies, has had a female prime minister. But then, as someone famously said, "she was the best man for the job". Almost a century after women got the vote, 81 per cent of Britain's MPs and 95 per cent of US senators are men; 84 per cent of the members of the reformed House of Lords and 75 per cent of Britain's local councillors are men. Only in the new regional assemblies have women begun to achieve the kind of numbers that reflect that they make up 52 per cent of the population; 40 per cent of the members of the Welsh Assembly and 37 per cent of the Scottish Parliament are women. A big improvement, which holds out the hope that Westminster man - Labour as well as Conservative - finally faces some competition. His politics, involving those regular character assassinations that nowadays pass for serious comment, but are just poison-pen letters with an enormous circulation, may finally come to an end. And not a moment too soon: because what on earth prompted three Cabinet ministers to rubbish the Chancellor in the Sunday Times? Why do they not have the courage to tell him so themselves? We had hoped for more from a Labour government. It is so disheartening when our people behave just like the ones we spent years trying to oust.

Still, it was the Labour Party that, with much difficulty, reformed its selection process to help women come through. In 1997, the election of 101 female Labour MPs doubled women's representation in the House of Commons. In the same election, the opposition parties managed to elect only 19 female MPs between them. Plaid Cymru and the unionist parties had no female MPs at all, and the Conservatives' total of 13 was exactly the same number that they returned in the 1931 general election.

Over the past decade, too, Labour has made a concerted effort to involve and appoint women at all levels. The party now has a female general secretary and, last year, record numbers of female delegates attended the annual conference. Constituency sections are changing their meeting times and modernising their agendas to attract women. At government level, five Cabinet ministers, 24 ministers and five whips are women.

The Chief Whip, the Leader of the House of Commons and the Leader of the House of Lords are all Labour women, as was the outgoing Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. A proud record and one that, when I joined the party in the late 1970s, was simply inconceivable. Then, we had 11 Labour female MPs out of a grand total of 19. But in those days, as a friendly male delegate at the 1980 conference told me, "that was the natural order of things".

The Westminster culture is pernicious, outdated and damaging. It perpetuates the myth that politicians are lazy good-for-nothings who would regularly sell close family members for the sake of personal advancement. Modernisation is urgent and essential. That is why the election of the Speaker is so important. Unfortunately, tradition dictates that this will be decided by a combination of precedent, preference and batsqueaks. My vote goes to the woman or man who will update our hours and work practices to reflect those of the country we govern. Allowing MPs to use laptops in committee would be a start. Those of us who served on the E-Commerce Bill earlier this year were not even allowed to switch them on. Meanwhile, Labour women should not lose heart. If we continue to work closely with each other and like-minded men, we can change the Westminster culture.

The writer is Labour MP for Stevenage

This article first appeared in the 25 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Women: still firmly in their place