Getting British women into the House

Lesley Abdela is a small, ebullient woman with a big mission. From a London office little bigger than a broom closet, she is busily working to change the face of British politics.

A one-time Liberal Party candidate for Parliament, Ms. Abdela is the founder of the ''300 Group'' - a three-year-old organization that works to give women a greater say in government. The ''300'' refers to the number of women the group would like to get into Parliament.

The organization's work is long overdue. More than 60 years after Lady Nancy Astor became Britain's first woman in Parliament, women are still grossly underrepresented at Westminster. Although women comprise over half the electorate, there are only 23 women among the 650 members of Parliament - the smallest proportion of woman MPs in West Europe. Until Abdela came along, this fact tended to be overlooked, perhaps, ironically, because Britain has such a high-profile woman leader in Margaret Thatcher.

The 300 Group is a multiparty organization. Abdela sums up its aims like this: ''Whatever a woman's views are, those are her business. Our business is to get her into the decisionmaking parts of politics, where her views and her voice will be heard - at the local, national, and European levels.''

It was Abdela's first experience in politics some 10 years ago that showed her the urgency of giving women a more responsible role. She went to a local political meeting and approached the chairman afterwards to say she would like to join.

''I will quote you his words, because they're engraved here,'' says Abdela, pointing to her heart. ''He told me: 'Splendid my dear, our women do such a marvelous job of raising money for us men with their coffee mornings. Do go and see Mrs. So-and-So over there, she'd be delighted to welcome you!' ''

It was not quite what Abdela had in mind. That encounter put her off politics for two years until a friend suggested she run for Parliament. After a brief apprenticeship at the House of Commons as a researcher for two Liberal MPs (both male), she did so. Although she lost, she came across many women in the process of campaigning who, she says, ''should have been out fronting British politics.'' But Abdela quickly realized that they did not know how to go about it.

''I asked myself how I had started. It was because three or four people around me, men and women, had given me a lot of encouragement and had helped to develop a political education program for me. It occurred to me that maybe this was what other women needed - and the 300 Group was born.''

Its achievements are impressive: Some 3,000 women have come forward to set up or join one of a network of 40 local groups throughout the country. They specialize in activities aimed at demystifying the apparently daunting process of getting into Parliament.

''It all sounds so remote, standing for Parliament. But it's not at all - it's just like any other job. All women have to do is to take a close look at some of our existing MPs. Then they would stop feeling so overawed by Westminster,'' Abdela says.

The group has also helped change attitudes. It is now accepted inside and outside the party organizations that there should be more women in Parliament.

Although the 300 Group hesitates to take all the credit, one-third more women stood as candidates in the last general election in June than in 1979. But the number of women elected remained the same as in 1979: 23.

The reasons for this are complex. They are partly tied in with Britain's electoral system, which, according to Elisabeth Vallance, senior lecturer in politics at London University, discriminates against women: ''When it comes to the crunch, each constituency party is choosing a single candidate and there is no political incentive to choose other than the standard product, which is middle-class, middle-aged, and male.''

Another factor is that many of those women who stood for election represented minority parties, such as the Ecology Party, whose candidates - male or female - have no real hope of winning.

What is needed now, says Abdela, is for vastly more women to come forward.

''I know all the reasons that hold women back,'' she says. ''I'm aware of the domestic and financial problems of standing for Parliament. But nevertheless, there are some 28 million women in Britain. . . . If just one woman came forward in each constituency, we would have 600 women on every party's list of candidates.''

Although she is well aware that this is not going to happen overnight, Abdela is optimistic: ''I notice now when I talk in schools that there are many young girls who say they want to be prime minister when they grow up. Now that's something you would never have heard in my day.''

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