Breast behaviour in the House
When I was 14, the predictable surge of sex hormones resulted in what seemed like an overnight bosom. Not for me those charmingly neat little adolescent bee-stings that graced the chests of my friends. I mushroomed from a 34A bra to a 36DD in the course of a school term.
This was a source of much ribaldry among the boys in my class, especially as I was a bit of a tomboy with a reputation for being a mean goalie. One of my sharpest schoolday memories is the humiliation at discovering that one class wag with a sense of humour in inverse proportion to his imagination had started a 'find the dwarf competition'. The intention was that if I stood sideways and a small person could be found to stand under my tits we could block the goalmouth entirely. Hilarious, or what? My nickname, which had - for some long forgotten reason - been Jock, changed to Buster, Melons or Chesty.
So, on one level I can quite understand the irritation felt by the new female MPs faced by benches of their male colleagues, who seem to have been infected for life by that particular public school humour which means that any mention or sight of breasts - even concealed under clothes - is a cue for 'bad behaviour'. Blair's babes' distress that women members rising to speak are greeted by male colleagues 'with hands cupped in front of their chests as if weighing melons', has been widely reported in the broadsheet press and has even featured in a TV documentary on Westminster women. 'They do it on purpose. It's just another tactic in the battle and they will use anything, and men have always done that, when they feel threatened by women', explains Jane Griffiths, the new Labour MP for Reading East.
But if 'the lads' have always been prone to such bad behaviour, why are the women MPs making such an issue of it now? The fact that there are more women on the floor of the House may make ribald comments more likely but you would expect the women to feel strength in numbers. Why do they not simply develop a quick line of riposte. Any heavy-breasted 14 year old will be able to suggest some appropriate counter retorts to unwelcome remarks. Perhaps a verbal harassment advisory committee could be established to help those women MPs who are unable to think of their own response.
The New Labour women would like us to think that their protests are an indication that they will not tolerate any slight towards women. The House, we are supposed to believe, is being transformed from an old-fashioned boys club which defended the interests of men into a women-friendly 'inclusive' environment which takes women's concerns seriously. And heaven knows, they need some way to sustain the myth that the New Labour MPs are doing anything to promote the interests of women.
The myth that women in parliament represent the interests of their women constituents has never been more transparent. The overwhelming majority of Blair's babes voted with the government to slash single parent benefit - a move that will further impoverish some of the most vulnerable women in the country. The intervention of New Labour women in response to proposals to restrict disability benefits has been either unreported or non-existent.
Yet their complaints about sexual innuendo have featured in the pages of the New York Times. It would be comforting to think that the swollen ranks of Labour women could be relied upon to spearhead the campaign to keep contraception free, in the face of recent suggestions that a prescription charge should be introduced - but I wouldn't bank on it. The women who are so offended by unreconstructed men are far too intimidated to defy their party's whips.
In the week that Clare Short and her colleagues went public on the disgraceful behaviour of men in 'the House', I was amused to read an account by Labour veteran, Gwyneth Dunwoody. She was telling of her intervention in the debates on abortion law reform in the 1960s and revelled in anecdotes of how she, and her colleagues, would heckle and jeer their opponents and use any tactic they could think of to put them off their stride. To her, the end - legal abortion - justified the means. Perhaps in the 1960s Dunwoody's opponents were more gentlemanly, or perhaps she was sufficiently committed to a cause not to care. Perhaps Blair's babes should simply toughen up and start denouncing their colleagues for their policy decisions. But then, of course, they can't do that because these New Labour women really do find remarks about breasts more offensive than attacks on the poor.
Reproduced from LM issue 107, February 1998