TV Review from the February 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Last May saw the election to Westminster of over a hundred women Members of Parliament for the first time in British parliamentary history, trebling the previous total. The benches of the Commons— particularly the Labour benches, for that is the party the vast majority of the new women members represent—are no longer bedecked by the massed ranks of grey suits. There is now more than just a smattering of colour.
In a great many respects this is, of course, a good thing. That Parliament has not represented a wide variety of groups within society previously has been one of the factors undermining trust in Britain's supposedly democratic Institutions and procedures, a trust which has, in any case, always been somewhat fragile. Now it would seem, the House of Commons (if not the House of Lords) is more representative and therefore more democratic and worthy of respect.
Two programmes on BBC2 in January sought to pursue this theme. The first, Women At Westminster was an interesting meander through how the increased numbers of women in Parliament has affected the place, how they allegedly will affect it in future, and how Parliament In turn has affected the women themselves. Much of this concerned the facilities of the Palace of Westminster, an important enough concern to those affected directly but less so for everybody else.
The more compelling part of the programme was an analysis of how the culture of the Commons chamber itself is changing, for the better. It was alleged that there has been (and certainly will be in future) a decline in the "yah-boo" politics previously encouraged by a male dominated chamber. This has - most positively - been evidenced by new women members confronting the sexism of the older male MPs. Such sexism. at its worst, has involved sustained barracking and sexual intimidation of women MPs making their speeches, and has been typically directed at the massed ranks of new Labour women (though at some female Tory MPs too at times, as for instance recounted by Teresa Gorman in her book The Bastards). Unfortunately a number of the other instances of how women are allegedly changing the nature of the House were examples of wishful thinking or were trivial and superficial - like the claim that new women MPs asserted their independence from the stuffy conventions of the Commons when they clapped Tony Blair on his first appearance at Question Time (as clapping in the House is not allowed). This was a claim that was both entirely superficial - just like New Labour itself - and wrong too (ditto). Many new MPs clapped Betty Boothroyd on her election as the first woman Speaker in 1992 but soon learned not to do it again after a few quiet words from the Whips Office. History is likely to repeat itself.
We Begg to differ
BBC2s other effort on the new women MPs focused on Anne Begg, the Labour member for Aberdeen South who is not only a woman but disabled as well. In fact, Begg is the first MP to be allowed to sit on the floor of the House in her wheelchair. The difficulties engendered by her disability in a place like Westminster was brought across excellently in what was, in effect, a video diary of her first few months in the House. It was a programme which demonstrated that Anne Begg, like many of her new colleagues, is a very able and articulate woman. The tenacity she has shown in becoming the first ever wheelchair-bound MP has been tremendous. It was a programme which illustrated what, by and large, it was meant to illustrate, that having Anne Begg and all the other new women members in the Commons is indeed an advance, just as the election of ethnic minority MPs has been.
What was never mentioned is what all this is essentially a product of. It is a product of the shift away from feudal, archaic ideas of noblesse oblige, class and rank, and towards the meritocracy of capitalism. This is a meritocracy where "positive discrimination" is favoured for people who are disadvantaged "through no fault of their own" - women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, but where huge value judgments are still made about anybody else who may be disadvantaged—like the poor There is no special treatment for them, no closed shortlists to get them into Parliament or special sections in the Labour Party. They were the people who couldn't be bothered to do their exams at school, who don't want a job, or deliberately get pregnant so they can be given more benefits or a bigger council slum.
If you are of the view that there is nothing wrong with the system and that everyone but the "naturally disadvantaged" (or those clearly disadvantaged due to the persistence of outdated pre-capitalist ideas) is only disadvantaged because of their own indolence, then you end up like Anne Begg and most of the other new Labour women MPs. You end up voting to cut benefit from single mothers as nearly every single one of them did. If you can be persuaded of their indolence sufficiently, you could even end up voting to cut benefits to the disabled as well. After all, Anne Begg herself has demonstrated that the disabled can invariably do some work with sufficient "encouragement", so why should they be paid to sit at home lounging about on benefit?
It is armed with such thinking that the new women of New Labour aim to take the House of Commons by storm. Convinced - against all the accumulated evidence - that the promotion of "equal opportunities" within capitalism ensures a level playing-field, they go about their mean-spirited tasks with all the zeal of evangelist preachers. And just like evangelist preachers these are people who, underneath the rhetoric, represent a barely diluted danger to the working class and deserve the unremitting, principled opposition of socialists.