HOW TO SPOT THAT A WOMAN IS A LABOUR MP
Those new women around the House
aren't all alike, says Anne McElvoy,
who offers a user's guide
THEIR penchant for cerise suits and padded shoulders has been cruelly dissect- ed, their desire to replace the Commons shooting range with a creche megaphoned through the corridors of Westminster, and their presence variously described as an end to parliamentary civilisation or a brave new era of sweet reason and co-operation replacing the permanent masculine strife of the Commons.
But who are all these women (a total of 101 on the Labour benches)? What do they want, and what do they mean for Parlia- ment and for legislation? The women themselves are in the enviable position of believing that they make things better just by being there and diluting the dingy maleness of the place. Their male colleagues are already envious of the attention the new breed has attracted 'just fer lookin' fancy and doing nowt', as one disgruntled old Northern MP put it. Even New Labourites are startled by the sheer numbers of women bestowed on the House by the landslide. `I don't know what they do to the Tories,' said one middle-aged, middle-of-the- road backbencher who had caught sight of them en masse for the first time, tut by God, they frighten me.' Why exactly? Dunno. Just don't know what to make of them.' One Tory backbencher grinds his teeth and complains, Victor Meldrew-style, that they 'will start meddling in defence policy, increasing the aid budget and deploying peace-keeping troops everywhere'.
The Prime Minister has a relaxed approach to gender politics. So relaxed, in fact, that he forgot to tell the Health Secre- tary, Harriet Harman, that she was also to act as Minister for Women and had to call her afterwards to add it to her list of 'things to do'. His new female backbenchers are too heterogeneous to form a single Mon- strous Regiment faction. Predicting the effect they are likely to have is made hard- er by a third of them being the product of the short-lived, short-sighted policy of all- women short lists. Much to Tony Blair's relief, these were declared discriminatory by the courts.
It is fair to assume that half of this number (around 15 MPs therefore) would not have made it without this leg-up. 'Already,' said one newcomer, 'having the letter w printed after your name in party literature [abbrevia- tion for a candidate adopted through the procedure] is seen as a sign that you're a token.' That is an unfair but inevitable con- sequence of positive discrimination.
One early symbolic figure to emerge among the women is Gisela Stuart, whose victory in Birmingham Edgbaston was the equivalent of the Tories' holding Basildon in 1992 — an adumbration of the result to come. Miss Stuart is tres New Labour: clever, opinionated, pro-devolution and electoral reform. German-born, she speaks in an intriguing mixture of her native lan- guage and New Labourese, as in her victory speech: 'Democracy is about consulting rather than imposing will. You need to search the opinion to impose the other.'
Any suggestion that the women would be so cowed by the Gothic halls and Mr Blair's charm was dispelled when he addressed them for the first time on the need for discipline. They had expectations of their own. Patricia Hewitt (Leicester West) fumed at the idea that the House sat inconveniently on a Thursday afternoon 'when I want to be in my constituency'. The Chief Whip, Nick Brown, was not amused. Miss Stewart wanted more commitments on women's pensions. Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow) wanted to know what Mr Blair had planned for black unemployed youth. Julia Drown (Swindon South), a for- mer hospital trust manager, was concerned about the fate of the NHS.
The women's CVs show a preponderance from the public sector and the unions/Labour party apparat. Only a few, like Jenny Jones, who ousted Nick Budgen in Wolverhampton, have direct experience of business and finance, which might be a problem for Mr Blair as he seeks to strengthen these ties and loosen Labour's tradition- al allegiance to the state sec- tor. A striking number have made careers articulating the views of other people as press or liaison officers.
There are, however, already clusters of traits among the new MPs which might make their impact on the House a little easier to predict. We can start with the so-called 'Transi- tional Women' who have been in politics before New Labour was a twinkle in the Blair-Mandelson eye. They have followed the dancing steps of their leader's moderni- sation faithfully. Harriet Harman and Mo Mowlam lead the field. Margaret Hodge, who entered the House with Mr Blair's personal backing in 1994, is close behind, having seamlessly shed the left-wing attributes of her Islington council incarna- tion. Barbara Follett — the one responsi- ble for all those suits when she 'modernised' Labour fashion — must now turn her social skills into parliamentary ones. Like another new member, Fiona MacTaggart (Slough), Miss Follett is envied for having too much money.
Less widely known, but vital to the func- tioning of a New Labour government, are the 'Women of Good Sense'. These are the ones the country will still respect even when the honeymoon period with New Labour ends. Ann Taylor, the leader of the House, rules supreme in this category. She has embarked on reforming debate proce- dure to ensure better scrutiny of legisla- tion. This task may however be made rather difficult by the autocratic instincts of her own party. Tessa Jowell, Minister for Public Health, talks sense and holds the viewers' attention. Joyce Quin, a Home Office minister who inherits Ann Widde- combe's prisons brief, combines strong principles with an easy manner and will wear well.
Most likely among the newcomers to qualify in this category are Ruth Kelly, ex- Guardian and Bank of England, who will enrich the single currency debate, and Yvette Cooper, also in her twenties. Melanie Johnson, the schools inspector who saw off the abusive Tory MP David Evans in Welwyn Hatfield, will be useful in an education debate which will test New Labour mettle. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden), who led the attack on Arthur Scargill during the Clause 4 debate, is sharp-witted and brave, but her utter devotion to Mr Blair might prevent her doing anything interesting.
Then there is the 'You've Come a Long Way' crowd. They have run the gamut of ideology hard on the stiletto heels of their icon, the new President of the Board of Trade, Margaret Beckett. Patricia Hewitt, freshly elected for Leicester West, once bayed at the then prime minister James Callaghan at a party conference for selling out the Left, but redeemed herself as Neil Kinnock's press secretary. She is now a Blairite expected to influence public policy.
The glint of old, cold steel also pierces the soft exterior now of the ambitious Car- oline Flint (Don Valley). Her modernising values have been applied rather thickly over a socialist undercoat. 'I'm always amazed by Caroline,' said Mark Seddon, the editor of the left-wing newspaper Tri- bune and bane of the Blairites. 'She used to attack me for being a moderate. Now look.'
Next, the 'Don't Patronise Me' faction. This is well-subscribed, since almost all new-intake female MPs make feminist noises when prodded. Alas, the signs so far are that many have a capacity to get into a lather over totally unimportant things, like the 'babe' debate — the first event to ruffle the calm of the new intake. When newspa- per headline writers tagged the new female intake `Blair's babes', the outrage was as loud as it was predictable. 'It is patronis- ing,' said Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale), a rather jolly soul who helped ease the National Union of Students into gentle contact with reality. Miss Fitzsimons, an accomplished public speaker, turned into a textbook ranter: 'It's patronising to be scru- tinised for the way we look.' Miss Drown believes that 'women are more co-opera- tive and don't seek conflict'. Hazel Blears (Salford) showed that Labour's old preju- dices still thrive among the young with her statement on the matter, 'I don't like "babe". It's an Americanism. It's puerile.' Only Miss Kelly showed real Betty Boothroyd-style aplomb on this debating point, remarking, 'If "babe" is the worst thing I'm called, I'll be very relieved.'
Next we have the Pasionarias'. There are a surprising number of these lurking among the pragmatists of the new intake. They are the generation of left-wingers who, having lost faith in socialism in Britain, turned their attention to the plight of those far away. Their patron saint is Ann Clwyd, who has been shunted off to the back benches for her unseemly interest in Turkish politics when she should have been taking part in a key vote back home. But there are more where she came from: Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley), a human rights campaigner, Angela Smith (Basildon), who is close to the charity War on Want, and Lynne Jones (Sellyoak). Amnesty Interna- tional, Index on Censorship et al. can be sure of some good lobbying and a sympa- thetic ear, if no extra funds, from Clare Short at Overseas Development.
Another group who may turn out to be the Left in disguise is the 'Power in the Union' faction. The GMB, which played its part in history by inserting Peter Mandel- son into unsuspecting Hartlepool, was responsible for the formative years of Sally Keeble (Northants North) as well as Miss King and Miss Flynt. Charlotte Atkins (Staffs Moorlands) has form with any num- ber of unions — Unison, Ucatt and MSF. Ann Cryer, widow of Keighley MP Bob in the same seat, will carry on his pro- disarmament, anti-Europe platform.
These latter two categories worry Nick Brown for the simple reason that there were not supposed to be so many of them. The scale of the Labour victory was unex- pected, particularly inside the campaign. This led Mr Mandelson to exclaim when he saw a notorious left-winger elected in a seat thought to be beyond Labour's reach, 'I don't believe it. That c— got in.' His pleasure must have been equally modest when Eileen Gordon secured Romford. Miss Gordon learned her political skills at the knee of the relentless Tony Banks. That is a thought to conjure with.
A more rewarding cluster are the 'Birds of Bright Plumage' — the Teresa Gormans of the Left. There must be some disruptive elements in this brave new Blairite mix, please God. My money is on Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow), the second black female MP after Miss Abbott, who excels in this category for her campaign quote, 'Tony Blair walks on water'. She does not, however, get along with Miss King, who tried to oust her in Hackney North. The newcomer wears Lycra trousers and plat- form heels and several chips on her shoul- der. We will hear a lot of her views on race relations, the police and unemployment.
The pushiest recent arrival is Angela Eagle (Wallasey) from the 1992 intake, who has just been given a junior minister's post at Trade and Industry. Miss Eagle speaks in a high-pitched whine which could shatter Perspex and will come to annoy in debates. She is now joined by her sister Maria, an intelligent centre-leftie who has not so far shown anything like the same impressive awfulness as her sister.
All journalists should pay homage to the 'Foot in Mouth' brigade. Miss Short is the undisputed champion. The only challenge to her outspokenness recently has been from Janet Anderson (Rossendale), who issued the unrealistic pledge that women would be more promiscuous under New Labour.
A small 'Miss Prism' tendency consists of members who discover children they for- feited earlier. Miss Short's emotional reunion with her son has just been echoed by Ann Keen, new member for Isleworth, who has revealed that she has met the baby she once gave up for adoption. The signs are that family soap operas like these will proliferate at the expense of mistress scan- dals and brothel visits.
Family connections in Westminster are growing to Sicilian proportions. Miss McDonagh the MP is the sister of the party's upcoming general secretary Mar- garet. Julie Morgan, new MP for Cardiff North, is married to veteran Welsh mem- ber Rhodri. Miss Keen's husband Alan is an MP, as is her sister Sylvia Heal. Miss Kelly's husband is Derek Gadd who is Miss Jowell's agent.
So far, the mood among the women is jovial and, to use a Blairite term, 'inclu- sive'. Jokes about the slow allocation of offices are the order of the day. One of the most determined newcomers stationed her- self in the Whips' office until a billet was found for her. But there will be bigger bat- tles ahead. 'I wonder if they realise', said a veteran female of the back benches, 'how bad it feels when some people start to rise and you just know you've been left behind. That strains the old feminist solidarity, I can tell you.'
The belief that the very presence of women in an institution leads to a net increase in wise and mature behaviour is widely shared. 'We are more co-operative and calmer and we won't get into those silly macho feuds,' said Claire Ward, the youngest woman MP at 24. A day later, Ann Widdecombe addressed the House on the subject of Michael Howard.