Gains for women could prove short lived

First published: March 1997

In addition to electing an historic number – 101 – of women MPs, Labour succeeded in closing the gender gap in voting in this general election. In 1992 exit polls showed that only 35 per cent of women voted Labour. This compared with 37 per cent of men.

The increased number of women MPs still leaves the Parliamentary Labour Party made up of only 24 per cent women members and the House of Commons as a whole with 18 per cent of MPs being women, lower than parliaments in Spain, Germany, Austria, Holland, Denmark and Sweden. At least 33 of the new women MPs elected were originally selected through an all-women shortlist. However, following the failure to appeal the Leeds Industrial Tribunal ruling, this policy was dropped and has not been replaced with any other mechanism.

In addition, a large number of the new women Labour MPs were elected in seats which experienced some of the biggest swings from the Tories. These included Basildon, Blackpool North, Castle Point, Romford, Swindon South, and several others, where there were swings of more than 14 per cent. That is, much higher than the average swing, in England, of 10 per cent. So some of the women elected are in the most vulnerable seats, and with women-only shortlists gone there is no longer any mechanism to force up the number of women candidates.

Tony Blair’s policies are going to hit women particularly hard. This is the meaning of a low national minimum wage with women constituting the bulk of low-paid workers, Frank Field’s ‘radical reform’ of the welfare state threatening to deny single mothers unemployment benefits when their youngest child reaches four and attacks on the state pension. Women live longer on average than men to find their pension entitlements undermined by low pay in their working lives and interruptions to care for children: millions of women will be unable to afford the private pensions advocated by Field.

One of the newly elected 101, Patricia Hewitt, called for the extension of Labour’s ‘welfare to work’ policies to ‘lone mothers, partners of unemployed men and those on family credit… [who] live off benefit’, adding ‘why shouldn’t Welfare to Work embrace anyone now on welfare who is able to work?’ (Guardian 13 May).

Such policies promise a nightmare for millions of women. This will provoke a reaction from women in society, in the unions and Labour Party, and even in the PLP. But the Labour right has steadily attacked the self-organisation of women in the party’s ranks, making the women’s conference biennial, and organising ‘training’ events instead. The Labour into Power proposes to abolish the women’s section of the NEC.

But women are not an insignificant social force – as Labour’s defeats in every election from 1979 through 1992 forced it to understand – they are the majority of society. Opposition to attacks on women’s wages, welfare rights and social position will inevitably find political expression.