First published on Progressonline
Labour was founded, not to bring about socialism – that came later with the 1918 Fabian-authored Clause IV, but to put working-class people into parliament. Initially groups like the National Union of Miners stayed with the Liberal party, hoping for scraps off the table. Soon it was clear that only Labour was committed to this first fundamental aim; the NUM and the working-class voters in the new franchise switched accordingly.
Labour led the way for women’s representation. Not the first women member of parliament, but the first in the cabinet and soon by far the largest group of women MPs in the House of Commons. The party stands on the shoulders of giants who entered Westminster in tougher times. Harriet Harman joined parliament in 1982 and was quickly derided for raising issues then deemed non-political, such a childcare. In 1997 a huge breakthrough took place and over the 13 years that followed most big offices of state was headed by a woman at some point. We had the first black woman in the cabinet and appointed Britain’s first woman European commissioner; Valerie Amos now heads up a United Nations agency and Cathy Ashton last year completed her term as first vice-president of the European Union. That government transformed women’s lives and these women transformed the policy environment we now live in. When Labour wins, women win.
Research by Progress shows that, had Labour won all its target seats in England and Wales in May this year, the party’s ranks would have been boosted by an additional 35 women. If it had not lost any seats to the Tories, it would have been 39. The House of Commons, with an overall net gain of 30 women, would now boast over a third, 34 per cent, of its membership as female. Instead women make up just 29 per cent of the famous green benches. This would have transformed our international standing. Currently the Commons is 38th in the league table. Under Labour it would have been 26th, joint with Serbia and one place below Uganda. This would have seen the United Kingdom leapfrog three European Union member states – Portugal, Italy and Austria – and seen us ahead of New Zealand – which remains one of the few countries to elect a woman Labour prime minister.
Had Labour triumphed in these 79 seats – and the candidates not been let down by their party leadership – 2015 would have amounted to another step-change in the character of parliament. Secretary of state for education Nicky Morgan was one of only six Conservative women where the Labour candidate – with all the resources of a target seat – was male. Labour’s Polly Billington was in all-female head-to-head fight. Had we won Hastings, Labour could have replaced Amber Rudd without parliament losing women’s representation. There were seven such fights among Labour’s English and Welsh targets, including in Brighton Pavilion which the Green party’s only MP represents.
While Labour is busy debating a false choice of ‘principle vs power’, it is women that will lose out most. The tax credit cuts, the wider benefit changes, the challenges around caring for older people, the hiking of childcare charges. They hurt us all but they hurt women disproportionately. Emboldened by the surprise outright majority the Tory right will be on the lookout for an opportunity, like they did with the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act and the Serious Crime Act 2015, to push free votes on abortion and the like. In moments like these we will not just wish that Labour has won a majority, but realise we miss those 30 women.