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.

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More female candidates have been selected but the gender balance of the House of Commons is likely to be little changed after June 8

In this post Agnes Magyar and Jennifer Hudson show that although the main parties have selected more female candidates for the June 8 election than in 2015, the proportion selected in non-held marginal seats is little changed. Drawing on Chris Hanretty’s election forecast they suggest that there may be little or no improvement in the gender balance of the House of Commons. If the result matched Hanretty’s forecast (as of 12 May) 194 female MPs would be elected, three more than in 2015 but two fewer than the number when parliament was dissolved.

At the 2015 general election 191 female MPs were elected, resulting in a more gender balanced House of Commons than ever before. Yet, despite significant progress, women comprised just 30% of all MPs at the time of dissolution. In a blog last week, we argued – as have others – that the snap election and the centralised selection processes that took place, provided parties with the opportunity to address to further address the imbalance, should they choose to do so. Maria Miller, Chair of the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee – noted: ‘We heard a lot of encouraging promises when we took evidence on this last year from leadership figures in the Conservatives, Labour Party, SNP and the Liberal Democrats, but we expressed concern that warm words had not yet resulted in concrete strategies to deliver more women candidates, particularly in winnable seats.’

The concern that parties are much less likely to select women in winnable seats is not new and was highlighted by Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs following the 2010 general election. With candidates now selected, we look to see whether parties took advantage of the opportunity, and whether women candidates were selected in parties’ winnable seats.

Selecting women candidates in the snap election

Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have gone about increasing their numbers of female MPs in different ways. Labour introduced all-women shortlists (AWS) in 1997 – tripling their number of female MPs as a result and establishing a leading position among parties with respect to the number of female candidates elected to parliament. Gender quotas, highly controversial at that time, have not ceased to be subject to debate. Yet, by now all major parties have come to advocate, one way or another, a fairer balance between men and women in the Commons. Following years of reluctance the Liberal Democrats have now adopted AWS, following the return of an all-male group of MPs in 2015 after the loss of the majority of their seats. The Conservatives have rejected AWS, instead relying on Women2Win, an organisation founded by Theresa May and Baroness (Ann) Jenkin in 2005, to identify, motivate and train female parliamentary candidates.

One way to look at the parties’ progress in selecting women candidates is to look at new seats, i.e. seats they do not currently hold. As Table 1 shows, the number of female candidates nominated for new seats by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats has changed very little from 2015 to 2017. Women candidates make up between 28% and 37% of all new selections for each party across these two elections, but only the Lib Dems have increased the proportion of women selected, from 28% in 2015 to 30% in 2017. But with as many as 163 female incumbents re-standing between the three parties, the overall proportion of female candidates for Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems has risen from 29% to 33%.

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The Irish government is pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively than the UK government

Northern Ireland has been on the sidelines of the UK general election campaign, despite continuing political deadlock and the major unresolved questions resulting from Brexit. Brian Walker suggests that this reflects a general disengagement with Northern Ireland from the May government, which has taken the view that the North’s political issues are for their politicians to sort out. The Irish government can now be said to be pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively.

Northern Ireland is accustomed to being tucked away on the sidelines of a UK general election. While it is part of the constitutional nation, it is barely part of the political nation, if that is defined by electing members of the UK government. (Scotland look out!). Its electoral cycle and political interests can fundamentally clash with those of the government at Westminster.  ‘Westminster will always put its own interests first, even if ours are about life and death’, is a familiar refrain. The snap 1974 ‘Who Governs Britain’ general election did for the first fragile power sharing Executive within weeks of its formation when voters returned a full house of MPs bent on bringing it down.  Power sharing did not return for a quarter of a century.

The collapse of the 2016 Assembly

Power sharing suddenly collapsed in the New Year under the impact of the Remain referendum result locally, which put the minority coalition partner Sinn Fein on the winning side and provided them with a test run for a bigger challenge. Devolved government remains in limbo, at least until after the snap general election on 8th June. In Ireland many nationalists rate Brexit as creating the biggest crisis since partition almost a century ago. Unionists and the British government are more circumspect.

Before the EU referendum, the Assembly had seemed to be going quite well. It had survived two terms with deadlocks but avoided collapse. Nationalists seemed broadly content with the constitutional status quo. The Sinn Féin vote had dipped and the DUP were comfortably ahead by ten out of 108 seats. A Fresh Start agreement brokered by the British and Irish governments at the end of 2015 ended a deadlock over welfare cuts that had lasted a year. It even led to behind the scenes talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin to settle a new style budget, as they campaigned for the Assembly election of 2016.

But the combination of a regional Remain majority, a bitter row over holding the DUP First Minster Arlene Foster responsible for a botched renewables heating scheme and the fatal illness of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness created enough combustible material for Sinn Féin to pull out of the Assembly early this year, obliging the British government to call another election. The campaign unleashed a flood of resentment at what republicans regarded as DUP majoritarian behaviour and lack of respect for Irish culture. In particular, they pointed to the failure of unionists and the British government to implement totemic equality measures like the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights provided for in the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish Language Act provided for in the St Andrew’s Agreement.

Unionists as usual saw Sinn Féin as exaggerating minor grievances to advance the republican cause but were thrown on the defensive over resisting Sinn Féin’s demand for Foster to be suspended from office. A nationalist ‘surge’ in turnout in the Assembly election that followed in March, bluntly to ‘stick it to Arlene Foster’, brought Sinn Féin within two seats of replacing her as First Minister, as the overall nationalist result overturned the unionist bloc majority for the first time. The Sinn Féin boycott won the endorsement of their voters.   Northern Ireland had turned a chapter. The Westminster election on 8 June will be another sectarian contest to gain advantage in the existential question of Irish unity, ahead of the interparty talks on the Assembly’s future which it is hoped will resume immediately afterwards.

The political scene – changing utterly?

There are profound doubts that the talks can succeed anytime soon. It remains a sticking point for Sinn Féin for Foster not to return to office until a public inquiry rules on her conduct in about a year’s time. Moreover, when the prospect of a hard border began to emerge, Sinn Féin quickly saw the political possibilities. A re-erected border would not only be a throwback to an unlamented past; it offers a potential new route to a united Ireland. Perhaps the time has come for Sinn Féin to abandon the frustrations of power sharing in a coalition of opposites, and build on the nationalist-dominated Remain majority to create momentum for a united Ireland within the EU, launched by a border poll, followed if necessary by another poll in seven years time as the Good Friday Agreement permits?

‘She doesn’t care’

The May government’s response to the Assembly breakdown is strikingly different from the close involvement of the Blair years, when peace through paramilitary disarmament and disbandment was the main objective. Without such a big issue to compel her attention, Theresa May has followed the Cameron precedent and has remained immune to appeals from local politicians and civil society to intervene personally. ‘Leave it to themselves to sort out’ is the mantra. This UK government displays less sensitivity to the Northern Ireland implications of key policy issues than the old days of the peace process. For instance, motivated it would seem by the Prime Minister’s frustrations over deporting Abu Qatada and a visceral dislike of European courts, the Conservative manifesto looks forward to a review of the Human Rights Act when the Brexit process  has concluded, even though the HRA is entrenched in the Good Friday Agreement and any change is strongly opposed by Northern nationalists and her Irish government partners.

May’s former junior minister at the Home Office, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, paid more attention to his party than his ministerial interests when he spoke out in favour of halting prosecutions of soldiers for actions long ago, giving support to a Conservative backbench campaign first sparked by what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than Northern Ireland. It therefore came as no surprise to local opinion when Sinn Féin rejected him as a mediator in interparty talks to get the Assembly going again. Brokenshire has remained on the sidelines, his role largely limited to extending time limits for the fitful and so far unproductive talks without an active chair, an agreed agenda or any obvious sense of direction. His main leverage is to threaten another Assembly election in what would be Northern Ireland voters’ twelfth trip to the polls since the Westminster election of 2010. In fact creeping direct rule restored by primary legislation is the more likely option if the talks drag on much beyond the summer Orange marching season.

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The Emperor of Japan, Prince Philip and the ‘a’ word

Two recent announcements – the Japanese government’s agreement to the Emperor’s wish to abdicate and Prince Philip’s retirement from public life, both on grounds of advancing age – highlight the fact that there is no continuing provision for abdication in UK law. Bob Morris considers the implications of this and suggests that there may be a case for change.

The Japanese government has agreed to the request of the current Emperor of Japan, Akihito, to abdicate on grounds of age and growing infirmity – he is now 84 years old. Prince Philip, 96 this year, announced on 4 May that he would be withdrawing from public life later this year on grounds not dissimilar to those of the Emperor. What are the implications, if any, for the United Kingdom monarchy?

Abdication – background

The problem for Japan is that Japanese law does not allow for abdication. The last abdication took place 200 years ago and there are no precedents for how a retired Emperor should be styled or otherwise accommodated in the political system. Moreover, revisiting the succession rules was likely also to come up against their continuing ban on female succession when male only succession has prevailed for 2,600 years. A Commission study of the issues reported on 14 April recommending a one-off law for Akihito alone – he would be given the title of ‘Grand Emperor’ – rather than a continuing provision. The gender issue, even though there is a shortage of male heirs, was ducked.

In continental Europe the experience is more varied. Dutch Queens from Queen Wilhelmina in 1948 have abdicated at around 70 – Queen Beatrix most recently at 75 in 2013 – in ways which permit their heirs to grow their families in relative freedom and privacy before taking on full public duties in maturity. (The current King Willem-Alexander succeeded at age 46.) There have been abdications in Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg. Particularly notable was the retirement of Pope Benedict in 2013. There have not been age-based abdications in Scandinavia where, so far, only two sovereigns (Norwegian kings) have exceeded 90 on death.

The position in the UK

There is no continuing provision for abdication in UK law. Further, the circumstances of the last abdication – that of Edward VIII in 1936 – continue to be of painful memory in the House of Windsor. As is well known, Queen Elizabeth II has repeatedly declared her intention of serving for the whole of her life. Now herself 91, the fact of her husband’s ‘retirement‘ at nearly 96 raises the question what sort of withdrawal (partial or otherwise) might be appropriate for her when she reaches a similar age retaining her faculties but experiencing at least the physical frailties of advanced old age.

The present law offers two possible routes: regency and abdication. However, neither route is entirely straightforward. It has also to be borne in mind at all times that the UK sovereign is simultaneously head of state in fifteen other Commonwealth countries, known as the ‘realms’. For both routes the appointment of a regent or succession of an heir in such exceptional circumstances would require acceptance in each of the fifteen realms in order to ensure that they all have the same sovereign. A number of the realms would need to legislate – a particular difficulty in federal systems such as Canada and Australia.

It is possible, of course, that abdication particularly might encourage some realms to become republics. However, as Buckingham Palace has previously made clear, that is and always has been a matter for the realms concerned. Its avoidance cannot, therefore, be an object of UK policy or the prospect therefore of an impediment to responding to a personal need.

Under the Regency Acts 19371953, a regent may be appointed – other than in the case of a minority – only where it is certified that, including on the evidence of physicians, ‘the sovereign is by reason of infirmity of mind or body incapable for the time being of performing the royal functions’. The declaration of incapacity must be supported by medical evidence and signed by three or more of the consort of the Sovereign, the Lord Chancellor, the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls. The bar has deliberately been set very high. Granted what is visible about their condition, neither the Emperor nor Prince Philip could pass the test. It is also the essence of the concept of regency that it should be a temporary not a permanent expedient.

This leaves only abdication as it is presently understood for the departure of a reigning sovereign on grounds of frailty of age rather than actual incapacity. In other words, existing UK law makes no provision for the circumstances of the Emperor and Prince Philip: the real issue is not abdication but simply retirement. It is only because of greater personal longevity that retirement has emerged to confront a legal environment which has assumed monarchs would die in office. The Dutch monarchy has dealt with the issue by in effect recognising a kind of therapeutic abdication as acceptable.

If the Queen achieves the age of her mother (101), the Prince of Wales (68) might not succeed until aged almost 80; and if he lived to a similar age, his heir, the Duke of Cambridge (now 34) not until 68. It is very doubtful whether permitting such a gerontocratic succession can be in the public let alone the private and personal interests of the people involved. It is partly in the face of this arithmetic that some have favoured ‘skipping’ a generation in the succession. But this would be a miserable reward for the Prince of Wales who has been diligent in his public duties and imaginative in his instigation and support for charities – effort for which his father has been rightly praised.

We remain some way off the Dutch solution in the UK. Not only is there the awkward memory of 1936, but we alone of European monarchies still also anoint our sovereigns to signify the conferment of God’s grace upon their reign. While other monarchies, for example in Scandinavia, require their sovereigns to be members of the state churches, none still anoints. In the Netherlands there is not even a constitutional requirement to belong to a particular religious denomination – a fact that may have made therapeutic abdication easier to contemplate.

The UK may be different from others in religious practices but it is not clear that those practices necessarily require lifelong service. The UK sovereign becomes monarch immediately on accession and the functions are not conferred by coronation and anointment. Nor does the UK sovereign by virtue of headship of the Church of England occupy any sacerdotal office. In other words, the UK sovereign occupies what is essentially a public office – august no doubt but still a public office. When even the most senior judges (and bishops) have to retire at age 70, it is not clear – even without the example of Pope Benedict – why retirement (however formally described) should not be permitted to the sovereign. No doubt there are still those who in their minds invest the office with some sacral significance or believe that permitting retirement would somehow demean the office and its significance: the Dutch example suggests the contrary.

Conclusion

In the purely legal sense, the UK monarchy is stuck in a position which permits insufficient flexibility to recognise degrees of personal frailty short of incapacity as grounds for permitting withdrawal from monarchical duties. The monarchy has so far responded by sharing out the Queen’s more routine functions amongst her closer family. While that may do much to alleviate the burden, it is a good way short of actual retirement. It has to be asked whether the present law is sufficiently responsive to the cost exacted from a sovereign who has discharged crowded public duties for so long and in so exemplary a fashion. No-one could conceivably take the view that honourable retirement should be withheld should the sovereign wish it.

Prince Philip’s retirement suggests the need for some positive and clement thought for his spouse as she comes to match his present age. In response to growing longevity, abdication appears to becoming more common even in religious circles. For some time now, Archbishops of Canterbury have not been expected to hold their office until death. Even in the Papal monarchical theocracy there is the example of Pope Benedict’s retirement which suggests that religious scruples should not stand in the way of human needs.

Part of the difficulty is the Queen’s own extraordinary dedication and lifelong commitment to public service, which makes it difficult to initiate any public debate about the possibility of abdication without seeming presumptuous and disrespectful. But perhaps Emperor Akihito should be seen as offering a way forward for all monarchies?

About the author

Dr Bob Morris is a former Home Office career civil servant and a member of honorary staff at the Constitution Unit. At the Unit, Bob has been involved with a variety of interests, and has latterly tended to lead on royal issues.

Select committees and the snap general election

In this post, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon discusses the impact of the snap general election on House of Commons select committees. He notes that although many committees produced several reports between the announcement of the election and dissolution, many inquiries were left unfinished. All evidence already collected will remain publicly available but there is no guarantee inquiries will be resumed, especially where a new chair is elected.

One feature of the announcement of a general election is always the loss of some legislation which had not completed its passage through parliament. But what of uncompleted select committee inquiries? Bills which did not through by cross-party agreement in the dying days of the parliament may well be revived in the new parliament, especially if the same party remains in government. The same does not apply to select committee inquiries.

Two years into a parliament, select committees will have up to a dozen inquiries, announced and at different stages, on their work programme. The snap election was announced on Tuesday 18 April and the House of Commons sat for the last time on Thursday 27 April – very little time in which committees could wrap up current inquiries. Only reports fully drafted and on the point of agreement can be finished. This leaves, for each of the 30 or so committees, several inquiries on which evidence has been taken and others which are just being started.

It is nonetheless impressive that several committees managed to agree and publish three or more reports in the dying days of the 2015–17 parliament. All credit to Defence, Education and Justice for producing three reports each but the prize must go to Work and Pensions, with five reports out in the last week – Frank Field was probably the outstanding chair of the 2015-17 parliament.

As a committee clerk, working with the chair to plan the committee programme, I often lived with the uncertainty in the fourth year of a parliament about when exactly an election would be called. The only other panic was in the autumn of 2007 when Gordon Brown had his Grand Old Duke of York moment about a sudden election.

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Non-executive directors in Whitehall: how useful have they really been?

The role of non-executive directors in Whitehall departments has developed over recent decades. A new Constitution Unit project, led by former senior civil servants, aims to investigate the role of these outside experts and the impact they have had. David Owen introduces the project and invites contributions from those who have been involved with the work of non-executives.

What role is there for outside expertise in the running of a government department? For some time now in the UK, one way in which such input has been made has been through non-executive board members or non-executive directors. The Constitution Unit is undertaking a project to look at who non-executives are, what they do and the impact that they have had. The work is being led by former senior civil servants Alan Cogbill, Hilary Jackson and Howard Webber. We have felt encouraged following discussions with Cabinet Office, who have expressed interest in seeing the results.

Non-executives: the evolving government approach

Governments have drawn on external contributors for a long time, but the term ‘non-executive’ is thought to have been first used in the early 1990s. In 2005, the Treasury set out guidance on non-executives in its Corporate Governance Code.  The code commented that much what it said of non-executives, as well as of the operation of departmental boards, was new, ‘reflecting an agenda which has developed rapidly’. It recommended that each central government department board should have at least two non-executives, preferably more, with the aim of providing support and challenge.

Following the 2010 election, the use of non-executives developed with the appointment of a lead non-executive for government, former BP chief executive Lord Browne.

This drive formed part of Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s wider civil service reform plan for the civil service. He saw non-executives as having a key role in delivering savings, providing the kind of input for which consultants had previously been paid millions of pounds.

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We need to talk about the London question

In this post Tim Oliver considers how London is talked about in UK politics, how we can assess claims that London has become too powerful and distinct from the rest of the UK, and how London’s place in the UK can be managed. He suggests that there are three broad approaches that can be taken to the ‘London question’: the status quo, separating the UK and/or England from London and devolved government for London.

Anybody calling for more talk about London inevitably receives looks of exasperation from people elsewhere in the UK. Surely we already talk about the metropolis enough? Despite repeated calls for change, the UK’s economy, politics, media and much more remain imbalanced towards the capital city. It is that dominance – or sometimes the perception of dominance – that makes it all the more important that we talk about London’s power and place in the UK and how to manage it.

To come to terms with London’s place in the UK, this blog post briefly considers three issues connected to several questions. First, how is London talked about in UK politics? Second, how can we assess claims that London has become too powerful and distinct from the rest of the UK? Finally, how can London’s place in the UK be managed?

London calling

Samuel Johnson may well have said that ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, but today people outside London might well be tired of hearing about the place (Londoners are equally sick of hearing that quote). London is talked about in UK politics in eight broad ways.

First, it has been described as the UK’s dark star, sucking in people, resources and energy from across the country. The bright lights of London have long drawn people from across Britain and the wider world. ‘That great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained’ was how Dr John Watson described Victorian London. Today that appeal has reached levels where the rest of the UK lives in the shadow of London. This is in large part because London is a global city that has become the UK’s undiscovered country. Other areas of the UK might have diverse populations and needs, but it’s London’s size, status as capital city, distinct outlooks (being home, for example, to the ‘metropolitan elite’) and unique needs (in housing, transport, health, security, global links and so forth) that can make it one of the UK’s most distinct political spaces.

As the UK’s most diverse and resilient economic area, London can appear to be what keeps the UK economy afloat. With 12 per cent of the UK’s population, London produces 23 per cent of UK GVA, about 30 per cent of all UK economic taxes, and on its own would be the EU’s seventh largest economy and one of the richest countries in the world. At the same time, London can be seen as the UK’s biggest financial drain. Government investment pours into London to the detriment of elsewhere. For example, £1500 more is spent on transport spending per Londoner than on people in the North of England. The rest of the UK also picks up the tab when London’s economy overheats or the City of London’s attitudes and policies help cause a global financial crisis that plunges the rest of the country into recession followed by a period of austerity.

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