United Kingdom: New Labour, New Women

United Kingdom: New Labour, New Women

by Kelly Candaele

At five o’clock A.M. on May 2, newly elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair climbed atop a stage to face the glistening Thames River, a phalanx of television cameras and several thousand weary but excited supporters. Blair paused briefly, letting the blasting music of a popular rock band subside before uttering the cliche everyone had been waiting for: ‘It’s a new dawn in Britain.”

Just hours earlier, British voters had given Blair’s “new” Labour party a 179-seat majority in Parliament, its biggest victory since 1945, and handed the Conservatives a humiliating defeat. After 18 years of Conservative rule, Prime Minister John Major and his fellow Tories were not just shown the door, they were booted out.

Estelle Morris, a member of Parliament from Yardly, a middleclass suburb of Birmingham, did not join Blair on stage in the early hours after the election. Morris was where she had been for the previous six weeks of the campaign, celebrating with her supporters three hours north of London. For Morris, Labour’s “new dawn” is not just the opportunity to gently alter the direction of British politics after nearly two decades of Margaret Thatcher and John Major; it represents a sea change in the role of women in British politics. On May 1, 120 women – 101 from the Labour party – were sent to Parliament by voters, almost doubling the previous number. Incredibly, only 167 women have been elected to Parliament in the history of British politics, a cruel indication of the third-class status of women in British political life, despite the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s 13 years as prime minister.

“We are not going to sit in the back of the room,” Morris stated shortly after her 5,000-vote victory. “We’re going to change the culture of British politics.”

While Labour’s victory was predicted long in advance – no poll during the two years of Blair’s Labour party leadership showed less than a 15-point lead – no one predicted that women would emerge from the election in such dramatic fashion. But the rise of women to positions of power within the Labour party did not happen by accident. Like most political transformations, it followed a process of struggle, creativity and individual leadership. Labour Member of Parliament (MP) Clare Short, now the newly appointed Secretary of State for International Development, realized years ago that women in most of western Europe and Scandinavia tended to vote Socialist or Social Democratic, hi Britain, Short suggested, women exhibited a “political time lag” related to the absence of large numbers of women in the workplace.

In an interview three weeks after the election, Short said, “Historically, when women were confined to the home once they had children, they tended to be small conservatives in their personal values and large conservatives in their voting. When they move into the labor market, which they have done in massive numbers here, their world view changed profoundly. . .they develop more awareness of broader issues that impacts their politics. This is good news for progressive parties everywhere.”

Closing Labour’s Gender Gap Women’s votes historically have benefited the Conservative party. With a five-to-seven point gender gap, women gave Thatcher and Major a larger share of their votes compared to men. Short, who was chair of the Labour party’s women’s committee in the 1980s, fought for years to bring women in the Labour party into leadership and candidate roles. Short and others pushed for leadership training and recruitment of women, equal representation on the party executive board and access to resources so more women could afford to enter political life. Drawing from the experience of Scandinavian Socialist parties, Short pushed for so-called all-women’s short lists, a formula for selecting candidates that would reserve a number of winnable parliamentary seats for women.

In the United States, voters pick most candidates for office through an open-primary system. By contrast, in Britain, party members select parliamentary candidates through caucuses and conferences. [For more details on differing voting systems and their impact on women’s political power, see “Ain’t I a Voter?” on page 16.] The all women’s short-list formula, passed by a Labour party conference in 1993, simply mandated that half the candidates for safe Labour parliamentary seats where an incumbent had retired would come from women-only lists, as would half the candidates for key targeted seats that Labour would attempt to take from the Conservatives in the next election.

“We had to do something radical,” reflected Jacqui Smith, Labour MP from Redditch, looking back on the fight for the women’s candidate slots, “because the scale of the problem was so great.” Smith, a former teacher, said the move toward parity exploded the primary myth perpetuating male domination of leadership positions. “When we were going through the first phase of bringing more women in [to leadership positions], there was a fair amount of disenchantment within the party It was a tired argument,” she said. “All we heard was, “We would like to have more women MPs, but there are not enough women coming forward.’ Now our politics is no longer the preserve of middle-aged men.”

Smith and several other candidates were also helped by the British branch of the U.S.-based Emily’s list. The group provided funds for child care, clothing, transportation and mailing costs – necessities for any serious campaigner.

Several male party members challenged the all-women’s list in 1995, arguing that the new procedure deprived them of equal access to the political process. The tabloid press also vilified the women as emasculating avatars of all that was dangerous and destructive in the modern world. Opponents of change took their case to court and won a repeal. The national court ruled that this modest experiment in gender equality was illegal. But before the court’s decision was implemented, more than 35 women had been selected for seats that were either safe Labour constituencies or targeted as winnable seats in the 1997 general election.

“By the time of the court’s ruling,” observed Meg Russell, the Labour party’s women’s officer, “a lot of constituencies had chosen their candidates and the party had a fair degree of success encouraging remaining constituencies to select women.”

Stealth Strategy The new women in Parliament are conscious of their role in British history and their potential impact on Britain’s future. Morris believes that “young women in particular were disillusioned about politics, feeling that it didn’t speak to them. Now they will look at Parliament and see people who look like them.”

During the campaign, Blair and other party leaders denied that any special message or strategy was developed for or directed at women. Fiona Gordon, Labour regional secretary for the West Midlands with campaign responsibility for a large number of contested seats, gave the official party line, stating that “women have the same interests as men, so we developed no special message to women. That’s not how we chose to target voters.” Her comments were echoed by Women’s Officer Russell, who added that “polls showed that women were concerned largely with the same issues as men.”

But during the last week of the campaign, Blair and party strategists chose to focus on “education, education, education” as the core theme of “New Labour,” a tactical choice that was determined with women in mind. Of the five modest proposals that Labour had repeated throughout the campaign, three of them – smaller class sizes, shorter waiting lists to see physicians at the National Health Service and safer streets – were seen by observers as designed to bring swing women voters into the Labour column.

Bob Mullholand, a California political consultant who provided training for a number of British parliamentary candidates, saw New Labour adopting the same demographic and political logic that animated U.S. President Bill Clinton. “Smaller class sizes, community safety and shorter waits for medical care – who do you think this is aimed at?” he asked. “Men could have their arms fall off before they would think about going to the doctor. Clinton did exactly the same thing when he fought for education, the environment, gun control and the minimum wage, and women provided Clinton his margin of victory. Believe me, Blair and his staff were watching closely.” BBC exit polls indicated that for the first time since the 1940s, women split their votes evenly between Labour and the Conservatives. The gender gap favoring the Tories had disappeared.

What also disappeared was any semblance of left-wing radicalism within the party, the belief strongly held by generations of European Socialists and trade unionists that the values and workings of the capitalist market could be fundamentally transformed. Blair became leader of a party that was already rushing towards the political center, having jettisoned the old Labour left of militant unions and socialist ideologues. After four crushing general-election defeats, the party membership was ready for anyone who could offer hope.

During the heat of the campaign, Blair insisted on calling himself a radical centrist, someone who would create an economy that is “modern and dynamic.. .where we apply new technologies creating the type of environment in which business and industry can grow.” This rhetoric assured the financial markets that he was not interested in wealth distribution, class warfare or renationalization of privatized industries. Echoing Clinton, Blair argued that in a new “stakeholder” society, “rights and responsibilities go together.”

Speaking the Language of Women? Such rhetoric undoubtedly sounds familiar to American ears. During Clinton’s first campaign in 1992, little Rock was inundated with Labour party staff who came to listen and learn. They carried home notebooks and reports that outlined how Clinton’s policy shifts and campaign operation could be integrated into Labour’s new look. It was not long before Blair was giving speeches about being “tough on crime” and “ending welfare [the dole] as we know it.” Even the Labour party “war room” in Millbank Tower, an office building overlooking the Thames, was a replica of the Clinton headquarters, complete with “rapid-response teams” and daily spin-control meetings with the media.

Blair’s new Labour party, like Clinton’s new Democratic party, has replaced the themes of equality and justice with the political buzzword opportunity as the animating impulse of public policy. In Britain, the emergence of women in political life may be the only force that restrains a complete embrace of market values.

Jacqui Smith argues that “we can now talk the language of women in the Parliament,” but will Labour’s moderate program move beyond words toward practical solutions to the economic and social problems that are as critical in England as in the rest of the capitalist West? Three days before the election, the Guardian newspaper noted that of all the countries in Europe, Britain had the highest percentage of children in poverty – one in three.

Additionally, a United Nations report showed that Britain has experienced the biggest jump in inequality of any industrialized country. Between 1979 and 1993, the top tenth of income earners in Britain saw their incomes rise by 61 percent in real terms, while the bottom tenth experienced an 18 percent decline. These are not the kinds of problems that will be resolved by Blair’s commitment to “celebrating enterprise,” as he told Clinton during his visit to London in May.

Income disparity and poverty are particularly acute for women of color in Britain. A recent report by the Policy Studies Institute, an independent think tank, showed that more than 80 percent of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis live in households whose income is below half the national average. And there are dramatic disparities between whites and Caribbean blacks in access to high-level jobs, housing and safe communities. Half of Caribbean families with children are headed by a single parent.

Issues of race and ethnicity were not prominent in the campaign, however. Out of a population in England, Wales and Scotland of more than 52 million, ethnic minorities make up only a little more than three million, less than 6 percent of the population. Blacks, including Africans and Caribbeans, are just over 800,000, while Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis total close to 1.5 million.

Only two women of color, both Labour, sit in the British Parliament: Diane Abbot, who held a seat prior to the most recent election, and newly elected Oona King, a leader in the Municipal Boilermakers’ Union. Although Blair appointed five women as Cabinet Ministers, none are minorities. Mary-Ann Stephenson, press officer of the Fawcett Society, a British feminist organization, suggested the lack of attention given racial issues was strictly political. “Getting more women MPs was a vote winner; getting more black MPs was not. Ifs the next big hurdle of the Labour party.”

Jenny Jones, a 49-year-old newly elected MP from Wolverhampton, believes that women will bring more passion into British politics. “Feminism is a real challenge to a lack of passion here. Certainly there will be more action on things of specific concern to women rather than long-winded debates from men. Women have to run homes and deal with day-to-day living.” Jones also believes that eventually women will challenge the moderate policies of the Blair leadership team. “We will have to pressure the party from within to move forward on poverty and child care. There will be a lot of movement from below in the next five years.”

Pressure will also come from a not-so-benign quarter, the European Union. One of Blair’s first moves as prime minister was his agreement to sign the European Social Chapter, which guarantees minimal protections for workers, including a minimum wage. Major had refused to accept the Social Chapter, accommodating the antiEurope faction in his own party.

As Blair moves Britain closer to Europe and a single currency, he will face pressure to further downsize the welfare state to meet the strict economic requirements of the Maastricht Treaty, which calls for lower budget deficits and reduced state spending. The international financial establishment wants fiscal restraint from domestic governments, while a revived Labour rank and file and a group of activist women will sooner or later demand action on the economic and social conflicts tearing at the fabric of British society.

Both radicals and feminists in the Labour party were thrilled by the Socialists’ victory in France on June 1. The French electorate repudiated conservative Jacques Chirac’s attempt to impose on France what Margaret Thatcher had carried out in Britain. Chirac had misread the public’s move toward privatization, high levels of unemployment and a monetarist fiscal policy. Clare Short believes that Labour’s campaign may have been shaped by a similar misunderstanding. “Clinton won but did not stand boldly on issues of justice and inclusion. The Blair leadership followed Clinton, but the people of Britain moved profoundly and historically in a much bigger way than the positioning of the party [in preparation] for what they thought would be a much closer campaign. I believe that on May 1, the British people thoroughly repudiated the politics of inequality.”

In Britain, the prime minister is chosen by members of Parliament, not the voters. Indeed, the only place that Blair’s name appeared on an election-day ballot was in his own parliamentary constituency in Northern England. This process places a greater emphasis on party discipline than in the United States. Parties here seemingly exist to hold a convention and raise money. Unfettered by a legislative branch, or by regional, ethnic or deep ideological splits, Blair’s agenda will have no trouble moving through Parliament. When you take power in Britain, there is no need to compromise with the “loyal opposition.”

But Britain, like most of the democratic capitalist West, is in the midst of a political interregnum, haunted by the ghost of Margaret Thatcher yet straining for an alternative economic and social model. It remains to be seen whether New Labour can clean up the wreckage visited upon British society by almost two decades of Tory rule. The size of Labour’s victory will also embolden the more visionary thinkers within the party. At some point, Labour’s rank-and-file members of Parliament will get restless, no longer constrained by the immediacy of a political campaign. When they do, it is certain that the new women of power will be among the voices trying to steer Labour in a more progressive direction.

Kelly Candaele is a writer living in Los Angeles and was recently elected as a Trustee for the Los Angeles Community College District.