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.