The British Council, Social development and gender

Democracy in action: the women's election of 1997

The British general election of 1997 will go down in history for a number of reasons; biggest landslide since 1905, youngest ever Prime Minister, worst electoral defeat for the Conservative Party since 1832. But from our point of view, the really significant fact is that 120 women have been elected as Members of Parliament, over twice as many as in the previous Parliament, and form a record eighteen per cent of total MPs. We wait to see if this critical mass of young women will change the nature of the British Parliamentary style, and have a positive impact on policies which affect women.

We also now have a record number of women in the Cabinet, holding the portfolios for Trade, Social Security, International Development and Northern Ireland, plus the Leadership of the House of Commons. The radical alteration in the make-up of the House of Commons is undoubtedly due to the Labour Party policy of drawing up all-women shortlists in fifty per cent of its winnable seats. This policy was taken to court by male Labour would-be MPs and ruled illegal under British sex discrimination legislation, but by the point of this decision, enough women had been selected to make the difference.

Watching women's campaigns

Over the last two years, the British Council has run training events for women politicians and would-be politicians in nearly twenty countries. Overseas offices were asked if they were willing to sponsor participants to shadow the election, for the first such study tour the British Council has ever organized. Eleven women from Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria and Pakistan took part.

Some were famous politicians in their own countries, known as the first women of their generation to break through into elected office. Others were younger, and expected to lead their country's national cross-party movements for women's greater participation.

Their programme was arranged by the Hansard Society, a British charity which promotes knowledge of parliamentary government. It included briefings on the British parliamentary system, electoral reform proposals, and local government. In the afternoons participants were attached to the campaigns of women candidates of the three main parties, and that was where they really saw the system in action.

Years of local activism

All participants were enthusiastic about the experience. They were struck by many things; the pivotal role of volunteers, often older women; the critical importance of opinion polls; the (mostly) graceful acceptance of defeat; the energy put into campaigning by candidates who could not possible win. Most were struck by the freedom with which members of the public would criticise the Government or pick arguments with candidates on the doorstep canvassing. They also found it hard to believe that voters could turn up without identification and vote.

Participants found many issues they felt they could adapt and use in their own countries, including the use of exit-polling (look out for its appearance in Egypt). Above all, they were struck by the role of the women's vote. 'Women kept the Government in power, and women threw them out', commented Naghma Imdad of Pakistan, who is in charge of a UNDP programme of NGOs mobilizing women's political awareness. (UNDP sponsored her attendance). The swing against the Government was ten to eleven per cent among women and nine per cent among men.

We are by no means claiming that the British parliamentary system is a perfect one, and certainly our record on women's representation has been far behind our European neighbours, especially the Scandinavians. But the British experience of political campaigning is rooted in years of local activism, and that was the value of this experience for those women with whom we work throughout the world. In Britain, at last the women who have been the bedrock of constituency activism for decades are starting to share the power.


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© The British Council 1997

The British Council, registered in England as a charity no. 209131, is the United Kingdom's
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