How 'feminised' is the mother of parliaments now?
Sally Millard asked some New Labour women MPs from the class of '97
How much has parliament been transformed since the election of 120 women
MPs last May, 101 of them New Labour?
When I talked to some of these New Labour women before the election,
their expectations were high. They felt that more women in parliament would
bring women's issues to the fore and create a sea change in the way that
politics itself was conducted. As Dari Taylor, now MP for Stockton South,
put it, more women would bring 'a softer and more feminised parliament'.
But has the New Labour government succeeded in creating a feminised
parliament or has it, as Helen Wilkinson recently charged, simply replaced
'old Labour's macho labourist culture' with a 'subtler, covert and insidious
laddishness' (New Statesman, 7 August 1998)? The failure to create a cabinet
post of minister for women is one oft-sited example of New Labour's failure
to take women seriously; and to add insult to injury parliament still has
its shooting range, but no cr¸che.
Dr Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes South West) and Margaret Moran (Luton
South) were elected Labour MPs in 1997. When they first entered parliament,
both women found it much as they had expected. 'Parliament is stuck in
a nineteenth-century model', says Dr Starkey. 'Obviously that's much more
a masculine model than a feminine one because women weren't active in nineteenth-century
public life. So the whole ethos of the place is very confrontational and
extremely elitist and public school. Certainly when we first arrived, that
was incredibly striking.'
The attitude of male MPs has often been criticised by New Labour women.
Jane Griffiths, MP for Reading East, made the headlines when she complained
of being interrupted by 'mocking laughter' and rude gestures from the Tory
benches when she made her maiden speech. For Margaret Moran, however, this
problem is less important than it is made out to be. 'The reaction is like
public school boys giggling at the back of the classroom, "It's a
woman!". But they can soon be put in their place.' She feels that
on the whole, 'women are much more concerned about policy and the way that
policy is dealt with, than about a few unwelcome comments from the boys'.
For Margaret Moran, getting more women into parliament 'is not just about
how the House behaves, it's about the way we can make government much more
open and accessible to people more generally'.
Moran has a point. As I argued back in June last year, the demand to
feminise parliament codifies a fundamental transformation of politics. The
trivial debates about men behaving badly were never really what was at
stake in this process. Nor, unfortunately, was the desire to put women's
needs first, of more than marginal significance to the New Labour machine
(witness the government's attitude towards single mothers).
The process known as 'feminisation' actually has little or nothing to
do with women or sexual equality at all. It is more about New Labour's
transformation of parliamentary politics through the imposition of a new
etiquette. The feminisation lobby has provided the language and values
to allow this to happen.
The challenge that feminisation poses is formulated through the language
of 'openness', 'accessibility' and 'consensus', espoused by New Labour
women MPs with Tony Blair at the helm. As Helen Wilkinson reminds us, it
was Blair who promised 'New Labour would be "purer than pure",
and that the style of politics he would foster would be open, honest, engaged,
communicative, listening and empathetic'. Wilkinson feels that Blair has
failed to deliver what he promised.
In fact a less confrontational, more 'open' and 'listening' government
is what we have got. But this should not be confused with a more democratic
Dr Phyllis Starkey is on the House of Commons' Modernisation Committee,
set up to look at ways to make parliament more 'user-friendly'. She described
the changes she feels will create more opportunities for consensus, minimising
the potential for old-fashioned confrontation: 'For example, changes in
the way things are discussed in committees. Allowing the opposition to
do the theatrical bit of opposing the basis of the bill, but then having
lost the argument, which they will because they are in a minority, to make
constructive criticisms about the way legislation can be improved, without
it then being implied that they are supporting the legislation.'
The idea of William Hague's Tories putting forward any coherent critique
of government policy, constructive or otherwise, has become something of
a joke. But what is being implied today is that the notion of politics
as a public clash of competing visions should be ruled out as a matter
of principle. Consensual debate centred on committees is now promoted as
a more appropriate way to decide policy than the aggressive, confrontational
style of parliamentary debate which Dr Starkey derides as 'theatrical'.
Of course, even the most ardent proponents of consensus recognise that
without any difference of opinions, politics is rendered meaningless. 'My
personal feeling is that there is a place for the confrontational debates
over big issues of policy', says Dr Starkey. 'What I have a problem with
is there not being room for the more consensual debates which would be
more appropriate for a lot of the business that parliament does. I want
there to be a better mix.'
Whatever Dr Starkey's personal feelings on the matter, by privileging
consensus over argument, the rules on what is acceptable political practice
have already been rewritten in a way that can only limit the scope for
public debate. The principle of democratic accountability is also up for
grabs in the feminisation process.
As parliament increasingly acts as a rubber stamp for decisions made
elsewhere, the transition from talking shop to non-talking shop is well
underway. There is perhaps no better illustration of this than the development
of New Labour's 'women's juries'. Presented as evidence of a more 'engaged'
and 'communicative' approach to politics, they actually push policymaking
further out of the democratic arena.
'Throughout the United Kingdom', Harriet Harman told parliament in February,
'we are committed to building a new bond of trust between women and government,
to replace cynicism and detachment by developing and sustaining a genuine
dialogue with women, so that women's many voices are heard and heeded'.
'The jury model', said Harman, 'is intended to improve and enrich our democratic
practice'. The result is the opposite.
Women's juries are briefed to approve a policy before its submission
to government. This, Harman explained, is bringing women's perspectives
'into all work across all departments, building it into the routine mechanisms
of policymaking, not as an add-on, but as an essential part of the policy
process'. But who are these women? One thing is certain, they are not elected
by us, and not accountable to us, so how do we know whether our 'many voices'
are being 'heard and heeded'?
Under the guise of greater 'participation' by 'the People', women's
juries, along with New Labour's other citizens' juries, help to undermine
any real democratic accountability. They bestow a bogus popular moral authority
on the policies which the cabinet decrees parliament must support. That
they do so under the pretence of making the democratic process more accessible
to women is both underhand and insulting.
Prior to the election, the fiercest criticisms of macho behaviour in
the House were reserved for prime minister's Question Time, seen as an
opportunity for backbiting and schoolboyish snide remarks. One of Blair's
first acts in government was to reform Question Time, changing it from a
twice weekly to a weekly affair and making it harder for MPs to spring
surprise questions on ministers. This has not only made Question Time a
more anodyne affair, it has conveniently allowed Blair to reduce his number
of visits to the House. Between the general election and this summer's
recess, he had voted in only 14 of 325 divisions in the Commons (Daily
Telegraph, 31 July 1998).
Such is Blair's contempt for parliament, that he prefers to address
his remarks directly 'to the People'. His first 'state of the nation' address
was given in true presidential style from the lawn of Number 10, where
awkward questions from MPs could be avoided. Even so, wanting to be kept
'in touch' with people's opinions, he went to Worcester, his favourite
constituency, so that he could 'listen' to the questions of a few handpicked
This is what the process described as feminisation is really all about.
Perhaps the most galling aspect is the apparent willingness of New Labour
women to see these changes as a consequence of the positive impact they
have made on parliament. As Margaret Moran says, 'Women do politics in
a different way, we think more strategically and tactically, and go about
things more quietly. We are better at finding ways of communicating to people,
going out and about and doing surveys to find out what people want'. New
Labour women have become the most effective PR agents for Blair's Third
Way. In so doing they have helped to legitimise a process that leaves the
majority of us even more excluded from debate and influence.
Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998