The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Millie Miller (1922-1977) and Josephine “Jo” Richardson (1923-1994) were both inspired to enter politics to improve the lives of working-class women. They were elected as Labour MPs for the north-east London seats of Ilford North and Barking in 1974. Miller would only serve for three years, Richardson for 20; both would die in office, leaving robust legacies as campaigning MPs.
Millie Miller (née Haring) was born in Shoreditch, one of five children. Her family was Jewish, and her son Bernard recalled that she “lost grandparents, older sister, brother-in-law, nephew, niece and literally thousands more distant relatives” in the Holocaust. Miller won a scholarship to Dame Alice Owen’s School in Stoke Newington, but left school at the age of 14 to work in a draper’s shop. She married her husband Montagu in 1940, and they had two children, Bernard and Elizabeth. Her interest in politics developed with her work in local girls’ clubs during the Second World War: she was required to visit girls at home, which made her realise “a lot of the things that I could see were not right with [those girls’] lives had some connection with the social circumstances in which they lived”.
Miller became Stoke Newington’s youngest ever Mayor in 1957 and would go on to hold various posts in local government and the Labour Party, including chair of Stoke Newington’s Housing Committee and acting leader of women’s organisations of the Labour Party. She was employed by the Inner London Education Authority as a social worker. In February 1974, she stood as the Labour candidate for Ilford North. She was defeated by the Conservative incumbent Thomas Iremonger by 285 votes, but won the seat in the October 1974 election.
In her maiden speech on 29 October 1974, Miller paid tribute to her predecessor, Mabel Ridealgh, for acting as her “constant aide and supporter” during the general elections of 1974, and was critical about the lack of progress in improving housing conditions in Ilford since Ridealgh spoke on the issue in 1949. She would continue to campaign on the issue of housing, sponsoring the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. In 1975, following a rise in MPs’ salaries to £4,500, she joined Labour rebels in voting down further increases, inflicting a defeat on her own Government. That did not prevent her from later joining the Government, however: she held the office of Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection from 1976 to 1977.
Miller died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in office in 1977 at the age of 55. In recognition of her achievements, an annual memorial lecture was held for many years in her constituency; speakers included her fellow London MP, Jo Richardson.
Jo Richardson was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to John and Florence Bicknell Richardson. Her father, who had stood as a candidate for the Liberal Party in the 1930s, died when Richardson was 16. She left school at 15 to study shorthand and typing, and began work in a steelworks in Letchworth. Inspired by her mother’s Labour politics, she joined the Labour Party in 1945 and went on to become secretary to the left-wing Labour MP Ian Mikardo. From 1947 onwards, Richardson acted as secretary to the Keep Left group and other groupings on the left of the party.
In 1951, Richardson became a councillor on Hornsey Borough Council. She stood unsuccessfully for Labour in Monmouth in the 1951 and 1955 elections; in Hornchurch in 1959 and in Harrow East in 1964. She won Barking in February 1974, and became the constituency’s first female MP at a time when she said that it “was unheard of to have a woman trying for a seat in the East End”. In Parliament, Richardson campaigned for women’s rights in social security and pensions. She also campaigned on protection from domestic violence and opposed attempts to restrict access to abortion. She fought for the nationalisation of banks and insurance companies, and was a founder member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She backed the Greenham Common women, who protested against the Government’s decision to store cruise missiles at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire in the 1980s. She tabled hundreds of written questions, urging Government Departments to show what action they were taking on such issues as the provision of childcare, and what they were doing to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace.
Richardson joined Labour’s National Executive Committee in 1979. She chaired the NEC women’s committee, and joined the Labour Front Bench in 1983 as spokesperson on women’s rights. On the NEC, she ensured that resolutions carried at Labour’s women’s conference should be considered and responded to by the party’s Front-Bench team, and in 1987 she persuaded Labour to back the appointment of a Minister for Women. She also chaired the party’s Black and Asian advisory committee.
Richardson’s health deteriorated in the 1990s, but she continued to work as an MP, attending Parliament in a wheelchair and sometimes arriving in an ambulance. She continued her campaigning activities even on the verge of death, protesting against the closure of the hospital in which she was being treated. She died in 1994. She is commemorated in her constituency, with the Jo Richardson Community School in Dagenham named in her honour.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
“Councillor Mrs Millie Miller”, London Remembers https://www.londonremembers.com/subjects/councillor-mrs-millie-miller
“Millie Miller MP”, London Metropolitan Archives Collections Catalogue https://search.lma.gov.uk/scripts/mwimain.dll/144/LMA_OPAC/web_detail/REFD+LMA~2F4427?SESSIONSEARCH
Bernard Miller, article in Camden New Journal, 19 March 2018: https://www.camdennewjournal.co.uk/article/first-they-came-for-the-anti-semites
Millie Miller, maiden speech, 29 October 1974: DEBATE ON THE ADDRESS (Hansard, 29 October 1974) (parliament.uk)
Jo Richardson, written question on childcare provision in the Foreign Office, 20 April 1988 https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/written-answers/1988/apr/20/child-care-4#S6CV0131P0_19880420_CWA_159
Jo Richardson, written question on sexual harassment policy in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, 15 January 1988 Sexual Harassment – Hansard – UK Parliament
“Richardson, Josephine [Jo]” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [accessible by subscription available from local libraries] https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-55340?docPos=1