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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 one.

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 citizens.

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

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