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15 January 2001

How Blair’s gender gap widened

Even if Labour wins well again, the number of women MPs may fall

By Scarlett Maguire

If Tony Blair poses with first-time MPs after the next election, the photograph will show him surrounded by men and the occasional woman. Unless radical action is taken, for the first time in recent history, the number of Labour women MPs will decrease. Labour is going backwards.

The figures are stark. Out of the 34 Labour MPs who announced they would stand down at the next election, five of whom were women, 28 are to be replaced by men and three by women. Men are expected to win the three constituencies left to select. By-elections in Labour-held seats have been an exclusively male affair. Not only have men replaced men, but Audrey Wise and Betty Boothroyd both had male successors.

All this is far removed from the 1997 euphoria that greeted the 101 Labour women who had been elected. “Fifty-fifty by 2020” had been the battle cry of Emily’s List, the ginger group that campaigned for more Labour women MPs: suddenly, it looked possible.

In the Eighties, the struggle had seemed hopeless. When Harriet Harman became an MP in 1982, less than 4 per cent of the House of Commons was female; there were more MPs called John than there were women, and Harman was ridiculed for trying to put childcare on the political agenda. The traditional view in the Labour Party was that women were an election liability – men would not want to be represented by a woman and women would not vote for their own sex. Men had no intention of ceding power.

As general election losses mounted, the party had to change. Research showed that women preferred the Tories; Labour was an unattractively masculine party. The message was clear: Labour was destined to stay in opposition unless it attracted women in serious numbers. The gender gap was costing the party power. Suddenly, women mattered, and it was vital to get more of them into parliament.

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However, while the leadership was convinced that it needed women, the constituencies, which selected the candidates, were still choosing men. After the 1992 election, it was clear that the evolutionary approach was not working. Progress was so slow that it would take 200 years to achieve equal representation. There was no time to wait for a culture change – it had to be imposed. All-women shortlists were argued, fought for and finally won at the 1993 party conference. Half of Labour’s winnable seats would be reserved for women candidates.

Then in 1995 a disappointed would-be candidate, Patrick Jepson, took the party to an employment tribunal and won. As the ruling was not retrospective and most of the women candidates had already been selected, the party did not appeal.

Party and press alike hailed the return of 101 women MPs, but there was still much work to be done, and the 1997 triumph bore the seeds of its own disaster. After the election, the minister for women, Harriet Harman, and her deputy, Joan Ruddock, wanted legislation for all-women shortlists to keep up the momentum. They lost the argument.

Those who had always opposed women-only shortlists pointed to the successful results and pronounced that they were no longer necessary. They claimed, erroneously, that it would breach European law. In fact, France, Sweden and Belgium all have some form of quota system. The argument was lost. Instead, all constituencies had to have equal numbers of men and women on their shortlists.

The new MPs also found themselves portrayed as on-message clones. They were seen as flaky – politicians of no substance who grovelled to the leadership. While Fiona Mactaggart and Laura Moffatt stood out as exceptions, the new women were generally seen as a class. Like the men, they came from all parts of the Labour spectrum. But when a man is, say, lazy, incompetent or drunk, he is an individual: a woman MP is seen as representing all women MPs. Amid general media disappointment, the tide turned against women.

Far from the election success changing the culture in the constituencies, in some cases there has been a determination not to select a woman. Regional organisers report that talented women have been left off shortlists in favour of weaker sisters to ensure a clear run for a male candidate. For more than a year, it has been clear that the selection process is not delivering.

Deborah Mattinson, who, as head of Opinion Leader Research, has carried out much of Labour’s qualitative polling over the years, says that women are beginning to desert Labour. “The gender gap is still a worrying feature for Labour in the coming election. Women floating voters welcomed the new intake of Labour women MPs because they felt they represented the wider population. They also thought it meant a new kind of politics which would be more inclusive. But they have noticed a lack of prominent women and are particularly concerned at the disappearance of Harriet Harman and Mo Mowlam. New Labour needs more women – and more visible women – to counter the image that created the gender gap.”

Clearly, persuasion at constituency level has not worked and the law will need to be changed to bring about parity of representation in parliament. In the short term, however, it is up to the party.

As the election looms, there will be last-minute resignations, leaving replacements in the gift of the party. These are traditionally given to favourite sons. Labour must be brave enough to remember its many deserving daughters.

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