Sally Millard talked to New Labour women MPs about what the 'softer, more feminised' culture in the new parliament will mean for political life
'Men have made politics a combative sport'
One of the most commented-on results of the election was the record number of women elected to parliament - 101 Labour MPs, 120 in all. While the tabloid headlines gave the new arrivals the usual patronising treatment ('Blair's babes', 'Backwenchers' etc), many commentators welcomed the fresh influx of women to a parliament which columnist Allison Pearson recently described as 'so male that the very walls seem impregnated with testosterone' (Evening Standard, 27 March 1997).
These days it is widely held that the grey suits and antiquated traditions of parliament are tied up with a 'masculine' style of politics that puts women off and gives politicians a bad name. As a recent report from the Fawcett Society argued, 'The culture of British politics is not supportive to women. The style is confrontational, with an emphasis on scoring points over the other party, rather than debating practical policies'. (Mary-Ann Stevenson, 'The best man for the job?: The selection of women parliamentary candidates', February 1997).
So, what can we expect from parliament, now that we have a record number of women MPs? I talked to two New Labour MPs, Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) and Dari Taylor (Stockton South), to find out exactly what they expect of a feminised parliament. Both of them were selected from Labour's controversial all-women shortlists.
Many people now see politics as a dirty word, particularly when it concerns argument and clashes of opinion. This adversarial style of debate is regarded with disdain by New Labour women, who see it as part of a masculine culture which should have no place in modern Britain. As Kali Mountford puts it, 'Much of what goes on in parliament is snideyness. Scoring points rather than genuinely seeking information'. Dari Taylor thinks that 'politics has become a combative sport, like going back to the Roman arena'. This is because, 'men's backgrounds in competitive and aggressive sports give them a more combative nature than women'.
Everything that these New Labour women think is wrong with politics today - self-interest, aggressive behaviour, an argumentative and forthright spirit - is categorised as masculine, and therefore as bad. We can expect the new intake of women MPs to lead the way in challenging this type of behaviour by creating what Dari Taylor calls, 'a softer and more feminised parliament'.
But what exactly will a 'feminised' parliament be like? The new buzzword is consensus. It seems that instead of politicians arguing over principled positions and standing their ground in debates, we are going to see a greater willingness to compromise and 'see the other side of the argument'. This is how Kali Mountford sees the politics of the future:
'Women MPs will be more prepared than their male counterparts to look for areas of consensus between the parties, and to develop policy in relation to this. This is particularly important today, when gaining all-party support for legislation is more popular than highlighting differences. Women are particularly adept at this. Their approach is one of consulting more widely and being prepared to listen to the arguments, rather than simply pushing forward an argument, no matter what.'
This might be fine for the new breed of women MPs, some of whom may feel too sensitive to cope with the rough and tumble of confrontational politics. But what does it mean for the rest of us? The promotion of consensual politics instead of 'pushing through an argument, no matter what', has implications that should concern all those who want to uphold the principles of democratic debate and accountable government.
The most obvious implication is that debate has to be confined to those areas of policy-making where there is broad agreement. The general election campaign has already given us a taste of what this means in practice, with politics being restricted to an increasingly narrow agenda and controversial issues notable by their absence. In an election where women were supposed to be to the fore, for example, such a major question as abortion was not addressed in any of the party manifestos. The attempt by the 'Pro-Life' Alliance to make abortion an election issue was met with calls for its television broadcast to be banned.
The effect of narrowing debate in this way is to turn politics into a purely administrative affair. Of course somebody, somewhere still has to make a decision about abortion law and provision. But decisions like these are now more likely to be made behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny. Debating them openly on the floor of the House of Commons is regarded as too risky. As Dari Taylor argues, 'Politicians tend to show off to the media by scoring points against one another rather than get on with the business at hand. It is in the committees, away from the media spotlight that the most constructive debates seem to take place'.
As the new-girl networks move into action, we should expect to see more legislative decisions being made in backroom committees, before arriving on the floor of the House of Commons to be rubber-stamped, without any of the controversial exchanges and airing of differences which women MPs are supposed to find so objectionable. Never mind that, as a consequence, public debate gets closed down and we are denied the opportunity to hear the arguments or to see where MPs stand on the issues.
The election campaign gave New Labour plenty of practice at shutting down debate. A booklet from head office warned Labour candidates of the dangers of holding open public meetings with potentially hostile audience members, advising that 'it is far better to address a targeted group of people - Labour members and supporters, groups of weak Labour, or Tory and Liberal switchers in a key seat' (Guardian, 2 April 1997). The process of 'consulting more widely and being prepared to listen to the arguments', as advocated by Kali Mountford, only applies to a very narrow constituency of MPs in the backrooms of the House of Commons and New Labour supporters in the constituencies. It does not extend to anybody who might want to pose awkward questions or go against the consensual stream.
Reforming parliament to make it 'softer and more feminised' provides a handy rationale for removing controversial issues from the agenda and restricting debate. The notion of making parliament and politics more women-friendly also provides a pretext for imposing a strict new etiquette on public affairs, where everybody is effectively told to mind their p's and q's.
Anybody who feels passionate about an issue and is prepared to stand by what they think will realise that confrontation, debate and argument are part and parcel of getting your ideas across and convincing other people to take your side. This is what politics has traditionally been about, and it is the way the best ideas are developed. By pitting your wits and arguments against an opponent, both sides are forced to clarify an issue, justify their position, and in the process develop a more convincing case.
If New Labour have their way we will see little of this in the new parliament, as it smacks too much of an adversarial style now seen as out of date and unconstructive. Instead, a more friendly parliament requires politicians who are prepared to be polite and compromising, to 'wait and see' how the land lies before they speak. The 'feminised' Labour government has made clear its readiness to 'listen' and make compromises with the official opposition. But the new etiquette will ensure that MPs who want to challenge the government line will be open to accusations that they are being too 'masculine' in their style and upsetting the working atmosphere in the House. Tony Blair's plans to take the heat out of prime minister's question time symbolise New Labour's aim to sanitise commons debate.
So, how do we hold the MPs and the government to account? It seems that New Labour gets it both ways in government. If politics is about compromise and a willingness to concede the argument, they have a ready excuse for changing their policies at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, those who want to challenge the status quo will find themselves attacked as insensitive and offensive. The new feminised culture may sound like a radical challenge to the political system, but by denigrating political debate and public accountability, it lets politicians off the hook.
Argument, controversy and highlighting the differences between political parties may be unpopular with New Labour's women politicians, but they do imply that there is a potential choice about what policies are to be pursued by government. They also imply that some things are worth standing up for and defending, despite the possibility that they might upset other people's prejudices. After all, anything worth having has always had to be fought for. If it had not been for women like the Suffragettes fighting for equality in a very confrontational and aggressive way, today's New Labour women would not have the opportunity to sit in judgement on their male colleagues and attack the 'masculine culture' of adversarial politics.
The new Labour women MPs may be outraged by being patronised in the media, but I find it rather patronising to the rest of us to claim that women are put off by confrontational politics, that somehow we cannot handle open debate with no punches pulled. I would rather have politicians who want to stand up for their principles in public and 'score points' (that is, win arguments) than MPs who are happier in smoke-free committee rooms and who want to avoid confrontations that might offend their sensitivities.
Ladies' man Blair with the new intake of women MPs
Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997