When meeting a new woman MP was no longer a rarity! Recollections of the impact of the May 1997 election on parliament

The outcome of the 1997 general election, 20 years ago this month, saw the number of female MPs double overnight. The new intake of female MPs included many women who would go on to become senior figures in the Labour Party, as well as the current Prime Minister Theresa May. Oonagh Gay, a former senior official at the House of Commons Library, recalls the impact that this change, together with New Labour’s wider ‘modernisation’ agenda, had on parliament.

On 1 May 1997 120 women MPs were elected; exactly double the number elected in 1992 and representing 18.2 per cent of all MPs. 71 of these MPs were new. For House of Commons Library staff suddenly it was no longer a rarity to meet a woman MP. Previously, it was possible to recognise each woman MP and name their constituency without much difficulty. Suddenly there was a host of younger, unfamiliar, female faces to process. 101 of those 120 women elected were Labour, reflecting the landslide majority achieved by their party, and the positive action policies which it had developed in the 1990s. To Commons Library staff, women MPs were new and demanding customers, anxious to meet their constituency responsibilities and to research policy alternatives. Due to a delay in allocating offices to ,embers, the Library’s Oriel Room staff were really busy with tours of the Members’ Library, especially in the first couple of weeks or so after the election, and so got to know the new women members quite well.

Among that intake were some women who were to become major figures. Labour’s new members included Anne Begg, Hazel Blears, Yvette Cooper, Maria Eagle, Caroline Flint, Patricia Hewitt, Beverley Hughes, Oona King, Joan Ryan, Angela Smith, Jacqui Smith, Gisela Stuart and Rosie Winterton. The smaller intake of female Conservative MPs included Eleanor Laing, Caroline Spelman and … Theresa May. Some already had a public presence; others were less established in their careers and from a wide variety of backgrounds. The impression was that they tended to be slightly older than their male counterparts and to have had more experience of elected office (in local government) and the public and voluntary sector. Suddenly, the Commons appeared a more welcoming, more diverse space. This was the first change of government for 18 years, and long-serving MPs were replaced by new faces and new accents.

The unprecedented numbers of women MPs coincided with a major change in the provision of information to members. The internet and emails came into their own during the 1997-2001 parliament. So it can be difficult to disentangle the two developments. Inevitably, the culture of the Commons changed as the provision of information by electronic means became widespread, and debates in the Chamber could be watched in MPs’ offices. Portcullis House opened in February 2001, providing a significant increase in office and committee room space, and creating a lasting change in the day to day operation of MPs, as they interacted with each other, and with staff, in its sunlit atrium. The number of senior Commons staff who were female began to increase too, although the first woman Commons Librarian, Jennifer Tanfield, had already been appointed back in 1993.

Many of Labour’s new female MPs were soon appointed to junior government positions, for example Yvette Cooper and Jacqui Smith, and suddenly it was rare for a department not to have a female minister. Women MPs therefore made their mark by replying to adjournment debates and other parliamentary debates. Tony Blair’s 1997 cabinet, with five women, was the first to include more than two female ministers at one time. Westminster seemed to be catching up with developments elsewhere in the public sector. By 2001 34 per cent of ministers outside the cabinet were women, compared to seven per cent in the 1992 Parliament, and women cabinet ministers formed 30 per cent of the total in cabinet. A historic shift in female representation was a lasting result of the 1997 election.

Legislative changes brought forward by Labour also led to more female politicians beyond the House of Commons. Devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland increased the political representation of women, with the number of women members elected in Scotland and Wales exceeding 35 per cent in the 1998 elections there. In 1999, the government removed the right of most hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, and the resultant change in composition doubled female representation in the Lords to around 16 per cent by 2001. The change to proportional representation as a method of electing members of the European Parliament also led to an increase in the number of women MEPs in 1999 to around 38 per cent of all MEPs.

The first female Leader of the House, Ann Taylor, was appointed in May 1997, and among her first actions was the creation of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House. This was a very unusual select committee, since it was chaired by a cabinet member, and was a key part of the Tony Blair agenda of making parliament more modern and more in tune with working life outside Westminster. It introduced a series of reforms, although more radical suggestions, such as electronic voting, were not adopted. An analysis of ‘ModCom’ is provided in a Library paper Modernisation of the House of Commons 1997-2005. The achievements of the Modernisation Committee under successive Leaders of the House have been the subject of some debate, but most sources agree that it was another impetus towards the development of ‘family friendly’ hours and working culture. The move against all-night sittings started earlier in the 1990s, as part of the so-called Jopling reforms, but the arrival in 1997 of London-based female and male MPs who had young children provided a vocal pressure group for change. Of course, there was, and is no one solution to the debate over sitting hours. Parent MPs from further afield have argued that it is better to concentrate sittings over part of the week, to enable them to return to deal with constituency business.

Commons Library staff certainly noticed the declining importance of night duty from 1997. From being sometimes overwhelmed with urgent enquiries in the evening shifts, demand dropped off considerably. Much of this was due to the increasing importance of the internet in providing timely reference information, and rapid adoption of email by research assistants and staff. The large majority, in contrast to PM John Major’s 1992 government’s declining support, also meant that the results of divisions were no longer much in doubt.

The growth in the provision of public information about the Commons can be dated from the 1997 election, when information about the House became available on parliament’s new website. Public Information Office lists were put online, including a ‘List of women MPs’ which prompted a complaint as to the lack of an equivalent list of male MPs. This was rectified and also added to the website. The Commons Library began to upload its major briefing papers to the internet in 1996, making them publicly available and free of charge.

Ultimately a public engagement strategy for Parliament developed from these first forays into making the Commons more accessible to the electorate. Women MPs such as Lorna Fitzsimons, PPS to Leader of the House Robin Cook in the 2001 Parliament, played a role in pushing this agenda forwards through the ModCom committee. Declining turnouts in the 2001 and 2005 elections deepened interest in public engagement and outreach from Westminster, and IT enabled the parliamentary website to offer a more dynamic approach.

The forthcoming general election on 8 June will take place just over 20 years from the watershed 1997 election. As ever, the Commons Library will be collecting data on the number and proportion of women candidates and publishing the names of those who achieve election. But it is worth taking a moment in the dissolution period to remember the profound changes in the representation of women in the last couple of decades!

This post was originally published on the UK Vote 100 blog and is re-posted with permission.

About the author

Oonagh Gay is a former senior official at the House of Commons Library, responsible for the Parliament and Constitution Centre. She is an Honorary Fellow at the Constitution Unit. She would like to thank Aileen Walker for contributing some recollections.

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