How the Class of ’97 changed Westminster
In May 1997 a record 120 women were elected to Parliament – including 101 from Labour. Twenty years on, Labour’s Caroline Flint and Conservative Caroline Spelman reflect on how their intake reshaped British politics
Inside and outside Westminster, women today have many more options because of the impact of those 101 Labour MPs, writes Caroline Flint
On 1 May 2017, I will have served as MP for Don Valley for 20 years, one of thirteen women to do so, including the prime minister Theresa May.
Despite Labour’s declining numbers in Parliament, I remain one of 101 Labour women. Other parties have improved but today Labour still has more women MPs than all the other parties put together.
I still feel the same glow walking into parliament because, growing up, becoming an MP was never part of my world. It was the most fantastic feeling winning in Don Valley and the country.
Before 1997 the press was full of scandals about MPs’ affairs, “love children” and a ‘cash for questions’ lobbying scandal.
It was an easy decision for my partner to give up his public affairs job and to work for me, and we upped sticks to head to Doncaster. Only a handful of men worked for their MP wives, so it was seen as a positive change.
I was surprised at how feudal the Parliamentary Labour Party was. Beneath the Leader (king) were the barons, big cabinet figures, each with their own knights and serfs. Those attached to a big beast were far quicker to achieve promotion; ability seemed a marginal consideration. I sure this is not unique to the Labour Party.
In 1997, I couldn’t see beyond being a good constituency MP, juggling life in my constituency, family and very late Commons sittings. Promotion wasn’t on my radar.
I wanted to champion childcare as a former childcare charity chair, only to discover that of 400 all party groups, including for beer and caravans, childcare wasn’t one. So with newly elected Conservative MP Caroline Spelman and Liberal Democrat Paul Keetch we founded the first Childcare APPG.
Our first goal was for parliament to take a lead by improving childcare for the thousands of men and women working on the parliamentary estate.
The media back then fixated on ‘the women’ rocking the old order: the barber becoming a unisex hairdressers and – shock horror – women’s toilets in the voting lobbies!
Rumours circulated that the shooting gallery was to become a nursery. I didn’t even know there was a shooting gallery. It was news to the public too! In the bowels of Westminster lies a dark, windowless barrelled chamber – perfect for the under-fives? Not bloody likely!
As for the hours, I never believed an MP’s job could be Monday to Friday 9-5, especially for those living hundreds of miles from Westminster. But the hours were silly. Monday to Thursday until 10pm and many sessions through the night; on a Thursday night I drove home arriving after 1am. I shared an office with Laura Moffatt, the Crawley MP, and we often slept there, with our emergency overnight kit including sleeping bags. Taking pity on us House of Commons staff kindly left us pillows.
Today Westminster has a thriving nursery in One Parliament Street, and parliament’s hours are more sensible.
Balancing work and family is still not easy for many families. But today parents inside and outside Westminster have many more options because of the impact of those 101 Labour women MPs.
I recall staying up all night to pass the National Minimum Wage Bill, as Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted against. Today no mainstream party would repeal this Act.
Equality legislation to provide paid maternity leave led to paid paternity leave or the introduction of civil partnerships which led to gay marriage.
I believe that 1997 Parliament reshaped the centre ground of British politics. I am proud I was part of it.
Caroline Flint is Labour PPC for Don Valley, and served as MP from 1997-2017
The class of 1997 made progress through self-help, says Caroline Spelman. But there is still room for improvement
With the announcement of a general election comes the inevitable memory of entering the House of Commons after the general election of 1997. On my party’s side it was like the aftermath of a war with news from the front line and the exchange of commiserations over the loss of so many in battle.
But as a new MP everything and everyone was newfangled to me. I struggled to find my way around the Palace and the strange language people used was lost on me in the beginning. I remember walking into the tea room which I found by some miracle, only to be moved unceremoniously after I sat down at the wrong end of it by party convention.
At the Queen’s speech I didn’t understand that by jumping up like everyone else I was signalling my readiness to speak when I was by no means ready.
There was no induction. The outgoing chief whip explained he was no longer in a job as my party was thrust into a leadership contest. Maybe for some being offered drinks by the array of candidates was attractive but I had enough trouble just trying to get through each very long day and coffee, not alcohol, was needed.
I missed my children dreadfully, having being asked at my selection to school them in the constituency. If you could have beamed me up like Scotty in Star Trek at the end of the parliamentary week on Thursday nights I would have loved it.
The class of 1997, which includes the current prime minister, had to make progress by self-help. We would gather and exchange hints and tips on what we had found out thus far. We volunteered to staff the standing committees and earned our spurs. I remember Peter Riddell saying these “girls and boys” will be lucky to see government after such a crushing defeat but we were lucky and we did.
Those early years were all about the deep frustration of opposition, working your socks off and making little progress. But all the while we were refining our skills and learning from our mistakes and those of others. Observation is a great teacher in the chamber of the House of Commons.
There were no offices available for us so we camped out in the library with what felt like our worldly possessions in cardboard boxes and helped each other out as we began to crack the code of how things worked.
We made friends on all sides. As the only woman in my party with young children I had something in common with many of the Labour women who came in as the patronisingly dubbed ‘Blair’s babes’, and indeed I was often taken for one, and this has made some of us firm friends to this day.
Things have changed a good deal over the last 20 years and now there is a proper induction programme organised by the whips and by the house authorities and there is a nursery and a bit more thought for working parents.
There is always room for improvement, though, and old hands like myself must help the new ones as they come in.
The hours are still long and the job is not for the faint-hearted especially with the challenging times we live in but it is still a great honour to represent my constituents in this mother of all parliaments.
Dame Caroline Spelman is Conservative PPC for Meriden, and was MP from 1997-2017