The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Margaret Herbison (1907-1996) and Jean Mann (1889-1964) were elected as Labour MPs in Lanarkshire in 1945: Herbison’s father was a coalminer, Mann’s an iron moulder. Both women understood what it was to be poor and both were passionate about improving the lives of their people. Housing provision in their constituencies was inadequate, so they used their maiden speeches to address the issue. Herbison told the House on 17 October 1945: “My people for a long time have been suffering deplorable conditions…living in a room in somebody else’s house for 14 years—living… in one room that is not even their own room.” Mann said in a debate on 25 October 1945 that the housing situation was “as bad as it possibly can be”, but that the saddest feature “is that which arises when a young woman is about to be confined.” She spoke of children rubbing their eyes in the middle of the night on the same bed and looking on “whilst the doctor is performing that operation.”
|Herbison graduated from Glasgow University in 1928 and worked as a schoolteacher until 1945 when, following her father’s death in a mining accident, she was nominated for selection by the Labour party in North Lanarkshire. She went on to unseat Conservative incumbent William Anstruther-Gray at the 1945 election. In 1948, she was elected to the membership of the Labour NEC and in 1957 became chairman of the Labour party. In 1949, she became a British delegate to the Council of Europe and reportedly the only woman to attend the first sitting of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg. |
In Parliament, Herbison spoke about improving the living conditions of working people and nationalising the coalmining industry. From 1950, she served as Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, until Labour’s defeat in 1951. In 1964, she was appointed Pensions and National Insurance Minister—later the first Minister for Social Security—by Harold Wilson, who described her as the “pioneer of all our great reforms in social security”. Her main achievement was the replacement of the much criticised national assistance scheme by supplementary benefits. She resigned her post in 1967 over the refusal to increase children’s allowances.
After her retirement from politics in 1970, Herbison refused an honour on principle, but agreed to serve as Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, making her the first woman to hold that post.
Mann, a mother of six, went from serving as secretary to her local ILP branch to becoming a popular public speaker, working alongside ILP leader James Maxton in 1920s Scotland. She stayed loyal to Labour in 1932 when the ILP, which had diverged from the policies of the Labour leadership, disaffiliated from the party—a move which she described as “honest but foolish”.
As well as serving as a senior magistrate and vice-chairman of the Scottish Labour party, Mann became a councillor on Glasgow Corporation in 1931. In 1933, she was appointed housing convener. An advocate of garden cities, she was determined to improve housing on the outskirts of Glasgow. She favoured low-rise accommodation over cheaper high-rise developments, but her ambitions were restricted by financial constraints, and she resigned from the post in 1938. In 1940, after her appointment to the Scottish Housing Advisory Committee, she edited a book entitled “Replanning Scotland”, drawing on Scottish evidence to the Barlow commission on the distribution of the industrial population.
Mann secured the Coatbridge seat in 1945 and focused on issues that affected low-paid women, housewives and their families. Fire safety was of great importance to her as she had lost one of her own children in a fire. In 1959, she successfully campaigned for better regulation on flammable textile fabrics. The 1950s were turbulent years for Labour, with rows erupting once again between the left and the right of the party. Mann’s opposition to the left-wing Bevanites helped to win her a seat on the NEC in 1953, but when, two years later, she voted not to expel Aneurin Bevan from the party for disloyalty– a move that displayed both her independence and strength of character—she came under attack from the right wing of the party. She stood down at the 1959 election.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Images courtesy of Parliamentary Archives
Debate on Housing shortage: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1945/oct/17/housing-shortage#S5CV0414P0__HOC_313
A motion on Amendment of Law: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1945/oct/25/amendment-of-law#S5CV0414P0_19451025_HOC_352
Debate on Materials (Flammability): https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1956/may/07/materials-flammability