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Labour on a mission to get women involved in politics - and Norfolk is the first stop

PUBLISHED: 11:22 22 January 2015 | UPDATED: 12:15 22 January 2015

Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

PA Wire

Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman will be in Norwich today in a warm-up for her national women's tour. She spoke to political editor Annabelle Dickson about how she hopes to get women out to vote.

Norfolk and its female politicians

Thorpe Hamlet-born Dorothy Jewson became Norwich’s first female MP for Labour in 1923, but was defeated in 1924 and on two subsequent occasions in 1929 and 1931.

She served on the Norwich City Council from 1929 to 1936.

Her maiden speech was on extending voting rights to young women and she sought more influence for Labour women within their own party’s structure.

She also campaigned for family allowances and easier access to birth control.

Conservative former South West Norfolk MP Baroness Shephard is one of the most successful female politicians from this area.

In 1990, John Major made her the first woman minister at the Treasury and she went on to hold three high-profile Cabinet posts under him – employment, agriculture and education.

Patricia Hollis, who became Baroness Hollis of Heigham, has written several books on women’s history, and is a former leader of Norwich City Council.

And the current leader of the city council Brenda Arthur is one of the small proportion of female council leaders in the country.

Elizabeth Truss’ elevation to environment secretary made her the youngest ever female cabinet minister last summer.

While Chloe Smith became the country’s youngest MP at 27 when she won the 2009 by-election in Norwich North.

The Labour Party’s women are gearing up for a nationwide fact-finding tour – and Norwich is the first stop.

While they haven’t quite sorted out their battle van – which they haven’t ruled out could be pink – the “soft launch” today will see deputy leader Harriet Harman, the first ever minister for women, travel to the city for a round-table event.

Ms Harman was busy sorting out the logistics at her Westminster office yesterday.

“There is so much enthusiasm, so many women want to join the tour, it is going to be great,” she enthused.

Labour has long boasted that it is the natural home for generations of women, and Ms Harman said the message would be very much a “sufferagettist-type of have your voice, have your say, feel to it” as they “hurtle around” the country.

The House of Commons library has estimated that 850,000 women over the age of 18 in the East of England in 2010 did not vote in the election.

“Those are women for whom the government is very important – for childcare, caring of their older relatives, for the pay levels at work, for their standard of living, for measures for attacking violence against women.

“Who is in the government matters for those things. We will be talking to them to try and persuade them to have their vote and have their say, whoever it is.”

Ms Harman also spoke of the importance of having candidates such as Norwich North’s Jessica Asato, who will be combining caring for her first child, Freya, who was born in December, with a tough fight against incumbent Chloe Smith in May.

“She is doing what most women do. Not all women, but most women have a baby at some stage, and they are able to see that there are women in parliament who are managing the balancing act looking after the baby, taking care of it and working.”

But it is not just the mothers of young children whom Ms Harman has in her sights – the increasing number of grandparents who are looking after their grandchildren, as well as working, and looking after older relatives, is also very much on her radar.

“In the past the grandmother often could be relied upon because she wasn’t working. But now women are having to work longer and wanting to work longer,” she addded.

“They have to work longer because the pension age is going up. They too are having to balance work with grandchildren, which they didn’t previously have to do.”

While she said that most grandparents wanted to be involved, the cost of childcare was also an issue.

A survey by Aviva in December found that thousands of parents are, in effect, working for zero pay, with one in 10 working families with young children having an earner who brings home nothing after commuting, childcare and other work-associated expenses.

The three main parties have all made it a key battleground issue – the coalition announced in its final Queen’s Speech a bill to fund 20pc of the cost of childcare up to £10,000 a year, costing £750m annually.

And Labour announced in 2013 that working parents of three- and four-year-olds would get 25 hours of free childcare each week if it won the election – paid for through a banking levy.

But Ms Harman hinted that there would be more announcements beyond that – although specifics were not forthcoming.

“We haven’t announced them yet, but that is going to be part of our five points for our ‘womenifesto’, as we are going to call it,” she said.

“It is going to be childcare, tackling violence against women, equal pay and living wage, women’s representations and our politics and older women. We will have policies on all of those.”

When challenged on their record for women, the Conservatives often point to the fact that the first female prime minister was a Tory, and with Liz Truss in the cabinet and with Chloe Smith having held a ministerial post and Therese Coffey in the whips’ office, there have been successful MPs from our region.

But Ms Harman said the Conservative problem was that there was not a “critical mass”.

“When I came into parliament and there were only 3pc of women, I was determined that we made sure we were a critical mass within the Labour team. It was no good just for us to be there, we had to get more women in.

“The trouble is that the Tory women have not actually got other women in. They are so busy saying everything is fine.

“They are not actually changing things. They are not speaking up for women within the Tory party and Tory government. They are speaking up for the government, they should be speaking up for women.”

She accused them of advancing themselves, and not the cause of women.

The Liberal Democrats would point to their big victory in the coalition government – the implementation of shared parental leave.

But Ms Harman said there were bigger issues to confront before men started using the new right.

“When you have squeezed family budgets, and when you have got unequal pay, which we have, with men earning more than women, the idea of the man taking time off instead of the women is financially unaffordable, and is not an option for many families.”

So what is she expecting to hear in East Anglia today?

“I am looking forward to hearing from the women themselves, but I know the cost of childcare is an issue but I also know bus travel is an issue.

“Supporting and caring for older relatives as well. These are important issues.”

With only just over 100 days to go until the election, Ms Harman will be hoping the band of women in their possibly pink van could tip the balance in what is likely to be one of the closest elections in recent 
history.

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