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Sunday, November 8, 1998 Published at 21:17 GMT


UK Politics: Talking Politics

Women MPs want more House work

More than 100 Labour women MPs were elected in 1997

The Women's Unit is due to report on its achievements and its new priorities on Monday.

The unit was established by Labour 18 months ago but since then the government has come under criticism for the lack of women on the front line and its macho style of politics.

When the current Commons women's minister Tessa Jowell was in opposition she said: "There are more Members of Parliament called 'John' than there are honourable ladies in this House."

Although Ms Jowell said she was fond of a "number of Johns", Labour intended to treble the number of its women MPs - from 38 out of 271 - at the 1997 general election and achieve equality in three parliaments.


[ image: Tessa Jowell: Combines women's role with ministerial duties]
Tessa Jowell: Combines women's role with ministerial duties
Of Labour's 418 MPs, an unprecedented 101 are now women and a total of 121 women MPs now sit in the Commons along with the first female speaker.

But the fact that only 20% of MPs are women, compared to 9% of the 1992 parliament, still leaves Britain second to bottom in the European Union. In Finland, about 60% of MPs are women.

Since Nancy Astor, the first woman MP, entered parliament in 1919 only 239 women have taken their seats compared with about 4,000 men.

The Labour Government has also been criticised for showing no sign of abandoning macho politics through its robust spin doctors and confrontational style of debating in the Commons.

Mary Ann Stephenson of the Fawcett Society, an independent campaigning group for equality between men and women, told BBC News Online: "Clearly we've got to see women in roles at all levels.

"We have got more women in the cabinet than previously, more women in spending departments and more women ministers.

"Of the 101 Labour women MPs, most of them are new so it will take a few years for them to achieve such positions.

"Mo Mowlam as Northern Ireland Secretary is one example of a women at the highest level doing a really tough job.


[ image: Harriet Harman: Lost out in reshuffle]
Harriet Harman: Lost out in reshuffle
"She uses a different style of politics and skills women use differently to men. She seeks ways of bring people on side.

"She's not macho or confrontational like some of her predecessors but she has showed a lot of bravery. It's a lot easier being macho and confrontational than using a pragmatic female approach."

At the summer reshuffle, there was concern that high profile women were ousted or moved to roles to do more with organisation than policy.

Harriet Harman, former minister for women, was sacked from social security while Margaret Beckett was moved from the Department of Trade and Industry to the House of Commons.

It was also argued the newcomers to the women's portfolio, Baroness Jay and her deputy Tessa Jowell, would be too busy with their other positions, as Labour's leader in the Lords and public health minister, to find time for their other role.


[ image: Baronness Jay: Busy reforming the Lords]
Baronness Jay: Busy reforming the Lords
Ms Stephenson said: "Baroness Jay and Tessa Jowell have both got huge roles which doesn't give them a huge amount of time.

"It makes their jobs as women's minister like a pin-money job, to slip in when they've got time."

It has been predicted that the number of female MPs is more likely to fall than rise at the next election.

The courts have outlawed all-women shortlists and many women were elected in marginal seats on the back of Labour's landslide and could lose their seats next time around.

A lot depends on the Tories, who currently have 14 women MPs out of a total of 164.

In line with William Hague's determination to change the party's image, the Conservatives have promised to hunt for more female candidates.

Ms Stephenson said: "It will take longer than just this parliament to change people's minds.

"I don't believe we need an individual ministry but we do need an organisation whose sole focus is to remember men and women's lives are different and that doesn't happen automatically.

"For that reason, it's good the unit is now based in the Cabinet Office and is not linked to one department.

"I think you do need people whose main job is pushing and reminding other departments and acting as a watchdog role.



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