After gains, British women frustrated with politics

Key to Blair's 1997 victory, women complain of being left out in 2001 vote.

Tess Kingham, one of 122 current women members of Britain's 659-seat House of Commons, has had enough of politics. "I'm fed up with outdated practices and poor working conditions," says the Labour member of Parliament (MP) for Gloucestershire.

Ms. Kingham won her seat in 1997, when the number of female MPs vaulted from 63 in the previous Parliament. The vast majority were Labour Party candidates, dubbed "Blair's babes" for helping to sweep Prime Minister Tony Blair to power in a landslide victory.

Anthony King, a political analyst at Essex University, says that of the 45 percent of voters who cast ballots for Labour, "an unusually high proportion" were women. Professor King says many were impressed by Mr. Blair and his policies, while others were pleased to be able to vote for female candidates.

But Kingham, a mother of three, says she is abandoning her political career because "I don't want to work in a gentlemen's club." She isn't the only female MP who feels aggrieved. Disillusionment crosses party lines.

While the Conservatives gave Britain its first female prime minister in Margaret Thatcher, the 14 present-day Conservative women MPs are convinced their sex doesn't get fair treatment in the candidate selection process.

Dubbed "William's Women," after opposition leader William Hague, the 14 have organized a mentoring program to give aspiring female candidates the skills to persuade local constituency committees, which do the selecting, that they have what it takes.

Caroline Spelman, Conservative spokeswoman on health, is one of several Tory MPs tutoring prospective female candidates. Mrs. Spelman provides tips on making speeches and on what to wear, as well as tactical advice. "There are personal questions they will be asked in the [party] interview that will press their hot button," she says. "They have to be able to handle the difficult questions with good grace."

One question that always comes up, says Spelman, is whether female candidates have, or intend to have, children. Conservative and Labour "political mothers" at the Commons face a lack of suitable facilities.

When dozens of "Blair's babes" arrived in May 1997, they discovered there were hardly any bathrooms for women. That deficiency was put right, but breast-feeding is still banned in the Commons precincts, and there are no nurseries or family rooms.

Kingham, who gave birth to twins in January, raises another point of contention: long and late Commons sessions that she finds "futile and exhausting."

"I am unwilling to stay up all night listening to schoolboy politics, then next day return to a chamber where everybody is tired," she says. "I think the whole place needs shaking up."

Blair, who himself became a new father on May 20, has reason to be worried about such attitudes. Early this month in London, he was jeered by a large gathering of women, who took exception to his speech on political issues. Senior colleagues are advising him that he cannot afford to alienate women voters.

Harriet Harman, a former Labour government minister, last week warned that the party stood to lose many votes at the next general election, expected in 2001, because of "a falling away in choosing women candidates."

In the run-up to the next election, women of both main parties will have their work cut out in winning nominations: Of the 26 firmly Labour-held seats where men are retiring, so far only one has gone to a woman.

Yasmin Qureshi complains men are "stitching up" safe Labour seats. She gave up seeking a nomination in the Bassetlaw constituency after deciding the cards were unfairly stacked against her.

Conservative women are finding the going tough, too. In 1997, the party selected 66 women candidates, of whom 14 were elected. Currently, 42 women plan to run, but only six are aiming for seats considered an easy win.

The Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank, has called the Conservative Party "blatantly sexist" in its approach to women in politics. In a report sent to Mr. Hague this year, it argued that his party hankers for "the days of the subservient family women." Conservative thinking is "still heavily dominated by traditionalists, who espouse a brand of politics which many women can find old-fashioned, irrelevant," the report said.

If the present trend continues, Britain could fall even further down the European ranks for women politicians.

Just 18 percent of British MPs are women, compared with 43 percent in Sweden and 37 percent in Denmark, according to Britain's Equal Opportunities Commission.

The Labour Party, with 101 women, ranks 36th out of 76 European political parties.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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