The 1997 anniversary should not pass without women's voices being heard
On Friday 2 May I will have served as MP for Don Valley for 20 years.
I was part of that historic 1997 intake, 418 elected Labour MPs, 419 if you include Baroness Betty Boothroyd, the first woman Speaker. There were 659 MPs and Labour had an overall Government Majority of 179. 101 Labour women — just 19 from other parties. And while we have seen some progress in other parties since, today Labour still has more women MPs than all the other parties put together.
Of those Labour women elected in 1997, 19 of us are still there, alongside four Conservative women MPs, one of whom is Prime Minister Theresa May. Recently, for the first time, the total number of women ever elected as MPs — 456 — exceeded the number of male MPs currently elected and sitting in Parliament at 454. There are 196 women MPs today of whom 101 are Labour. I’m still one of 101.
Sneaking under the wire three months before our 1997 victory, it was the most fantastic feeling winning in Don Valley and seeing Labour sweep the country. The beginning of the most successful period of office in Labour’s history. We won power. We kept power. We changed lives.
Of course, there came the time when we lost. But for me what has become clearer reflecting on the last 20 years and the brief periods Labour was in office after World War II is the power governments have to shape our society and our lives, not just economically but socially too.
The national minimum wage, which we stayed up all night to get through — with Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voting against — is now part of our economic landscape which no mainstream party would repeal. Labour’s equality legislation to provide paid maternity leave led to paid paternity leave. Likewise the introduction of civil partnerships led to gay marriage. What was once considered radical became the centre ground of British politics.
Siobhain McDonagh MP, Sally Keeble, the former MP for Northampton North and myself did not want this anniversary to pass without women’s voices being heard. The result is a new Fabian Society book This Woman Can, marking the 20th anniversary of Labour’s 1997 landslide victory, which brought 101 Labour women MPs to the government benches and transformed politics.
We did not simply want a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Women MPs, past and present, 1997 through to 2015 examine how the Labour Government delivered on the challenges women faced in 1997 and look ahead to how Labour can continue to transform the lives of women in a world much changed in 20 years.
Harriet Harman recalls the battle for women-only shortlists that ‘transformed not only the face of parliament but the agenda of politics and the work of government.’ TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady argues that unions have to adapt to ever changing workplaces to ensure women benefit from the protection union membership provides.
In 1997, 101 Labour women transformed politics but it wasn’t an end in itself. Laura Moffatt and Paula Sherriff compare notes on winning in 1997 and 2015 and find more is needed to break through the glass ceilings of male and class privilege. Jess Phillips writes that ‘if the women elected in 1997 taught us anything it is that women’s voices in parliament make stuff happen for women in the world.’
Labour provided a forward looking, modern policy agenda which challenged inequality, and challenged social attitudes, like never before. We need to refashion Labour values to meet the needs of a new era.
Labour in government did much to provide greater equality for women; now we need to address the challenge of how we secure further advance.
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