The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
In 1975, Margaret Thatcher defeated Ted Heath in the Conservative party leadership election to became Leader of the Opposition and the first woman to lead a major political party in the United Kingdom. In the press statement that followed, she put female candidacy firmly on the political agenda, saying: “We need more women to come forward to stand for election…it is somewhat of a disappointment that after years and years of higher education for women we haven’t got more coming forward for Parliamentary candidature.”
In 1979, following the winter of discontent – a period of political turbulence, industrial discontent and public sector strikes – the Labour Government lost a confidence motion in Parliament. In the ensuing general election, Thatcher became the UK’s first female Prime Minister, pledging to cut income tax, reduce public expenditure, increase home ownership, and curb the power of the unions. Her premiership changed the political landscape, ended the post-war consensus and, as Roy Hattersley said, marked “the last rites of old Labour”; the party did not return to government for 18 years.
In 1979, the number of women elected fell to its lowest level since 1951 with only 19 of the 216 women candidates elected. Eight were Conservative, 11 Labour, and none Liberal or nationalist. Two of the 77 newcomers were women: Sheila Faith, the first woman to be elected in Derbyshire, secured Belper for the Conservatives; and Sheila Wright took Birmingham Handsworth for Labour. There were three notable departures: Shirley Williams lost her seat to Conservative Bowen Wells, Labour’s Barbara Castle retired after 34 years of top-level politics and Margaret Jackson – soon to be Margaret Beckett – lost the Lincoln seat she had held since 1974.
In 1981, Williams left the Labour party as one of the “Gang of Four” to form the centre-left Social Democratic Party, becoming its party president. She won the Crosby by-election on 26 November 1981, becoming the party’s first elected Member of Parliament. Three other women won mid-term by-elections. Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden for the Conservatives on 3 June 1982 and went on to serve as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment and Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science. Harriet Harman secured Peckham in October 1982. She would become acting Leader of the Opposition twice, in 2010 and in 2015, and was both the first female Labour Minister to take Prime Minister’s questions and the first female Solicitor General. Finally, Labour’s Helen McElhone secured Glasgow Queen’s Park at a by-election on 2 December 1982.
By 1982, unemployment had topped 3 million and manufacturing was hard hit by a deep economic recession. However, the 10-week war over the Falkland Islands saw a turnaround in Conservative fortunes which combined with divided opposition parties resulted in a 144-seat majority for them in the 1983 general election. Labour took just 209 seats and the SDP-Liberal Alliance 23. Of the 280 women who stood for election, 23 were successful; 13 were Conservatives and 10 Labour. Not one Liberal or nationalist woman was elected. Four notable women lost their seats and were all replaced by Conservative men: the SDP’s Shirley Williams in Crosby; Joan Lestor in Slough; Labour’s Shirley Summerskill in Halifax; and Ann Taylor in Bolton North East.
There were six newcomers. The Conservatives included Edwina Currie, Under-Secretary of State for Health in 1986, who took the new seat of South Derbyshire, and Elizabeth Peacock, later PPS to the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People, who won Batley and Spen. Three Conservative women won newly created seats: Anna McCurley took Renfrew West and Inverclyde after a close three-way contest; Marion Roe, a junior environment minister in the 1980s and a Select Committee Chair in the 1990s, secured Broxbourne; and Ann Winterton won in Congleton. Labour’s Clare Short, shadow Transport Secretary in 1995 and Secretary of State for International Development in 1997, secured Birmingham Ladywood.
Dame Margaret Beckett, who had lost her Lincoln seat in 1979, returned to Parliament as Labour’s MP for Derby South. In 1992, she would become the first female Deputy Leader of the Labour party, and she briefly led the party after the sudden death of John Smith in May 1994. As Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, she oversaw the legislation that introduced the national minimum wage. She was the first woman to serve as Foreign Secretary and the second woman – after Margaret Thatcher – to hold one of the four great offices of state.
The period following the election saw Thatcher lead her second majority Government. The 1984 miners strike was one of the definitive events of the Thatcher Government, with the Prime Minister pitched against Arthur Scargill, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers. Those years were also marked by the troubles in Northern Ireland, including 1984’s IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative party conference.
Four more women would win by-elections between 1983 and 1986. In May 1984, Virginia Bottomley, later Secretary of State for Health and for National Heritage, won South West Surrey for the Conservatives, while Ann Clywd, later Chair of the Labour party, took Cynon Valley for Labour. In July 1986, Lin Golding won Newcastle-under-Lyme. In August of the same year, Elizabeth Shields was elected as the first Liberal MP for Ryedale.
The decade 1975 to 1985 saw several significant firsts: the first woman to lead a major political party; the first woman to become Prime Minister; and the first woman to help form a new political party and become its new president. It also saw the election of women MPs who went on to become pivotal to the future of their parties and to women’s representation. For example, Harriet Harman would later successfully campaign for women-only shortlists, which became a major factor in the election of 101 Labour women MPs in 1997.
Hansard Writing Team
Margaret Thatcher’s speech at the Conservative Central Office press conference after winning the Conservative leadership: https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/102487
Roy Hattersley article on the events of the March 1979 by-election: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2009/mar/22/james-callaghan-labour-1979-thatcher