1997, women and Labour – 20 years on

Caroline Flint MP, Sally Keeble, Siobhain McDonagh MP

The 418 Labour MPs elected in 1997 kicked out a Tory government. The 101 of us who were women also transformed our politics. Until that election, parliament had been a largely male preserve and that distorted public policy. We had a welfare state based on male living and working patterns, while many children and pensioners, especially women, were living in poverty. Our economy was hampered by skills shortages, while many women of working age were trapped at home by a lack of affordable childcare or a dysfunctional benefits system. Little was done about a preventable cause of death among women – domestic violence.

So getting more women elected as MPs wasn’t just an end in itself, important though it was to have a parliament that looked more like the country it represented. It was also about policy, and some of the benefits are set out in the new pamphlet This Woman Can: 1997, women and Labour. Changes in pensions, healthcare, childcare, equality extended to all, and an economy that worked for the many – women included – and not just the few, with enough to spare to fight the scourge of global poverty. We women MPs who entered parliament that day stood on the shoulders of giants of the trade union and Labour movement: Annie Besant, Mary Macarthur, Margaret Bondfield, Eleanor Marx, Jennie Lee, Barbara Castle and Jo Richardson. Some of the giants are in parliament still and have contributed to this book: Harriet Harman, Margaret Beckett and Angela Eagle. Diane Abbott was the first, and for many years the only, woman MP from Britain’s black communities.

We also paved the way for a new generation of women MPs who are redefining Labour values in changing andcontentious times. Some of them – Lisa Nandy, Paula Sherriff and Tulip Siddiq – have also contributed to this pamphlet. The greater diversity of the new intake is important as black and minority ethnic women have carried a double burden

of discrimination.

One face in the 2015 intake will be forever missing: Jo Cox who inspired us with her dynamic commitment and was so cruelly murdered.

In looking at the achievements of Labour women in parliament, we must remember that we would never have got there without the support and solidarity from women and men across the Labour movement.

Labour women MPs elected in 1992 had to endure the same hostility that was unleashed with such venom on their successors, and that continues viscerally through social media today. Yet the work that they did through the first women’s committee of the parliamentary Labour party, co-chaired by Jean Corston and Helen Jackson, was crucial in achieving change.

Having supported all-women shortlists, the trade unions provided invaluable training, financial and logistical support to prepare Labour women activists for selections, as did Labour Women’s Network and Emily’s List established by Barbara Follett.

So we are a movement, a historic sweep of humanity, with justice on our side. Since 1997 other parties have wrestled to get more women elected as MPs. In the devolved legislatures, gender equality is expected. Questions are asked if women aren’t on the frontbench, in cabinet, or in Number 10. Politics can never go back to how it was. The three of us who were there 20 years ago have worked together on this pamphlet to mark the legacy of that election victory.

But, we’re not there yet, as Jess Phillips so effectively argues in her conclusion. There’s still a way to go to feminise our public policy and our body politic. We need more Labour women at the grassroots, in local government, parliament and in our party’s leadership. And somewhere out there is the woman who will become the first woman Labour prime minister.

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