The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
In 1987, Margaret Thatcher secured a historic third election victory. A total of 376 Conservative MPs were elected, a tally that has yet to be surpassed by any other Conservative leader in modern times. This landslide victory—her second in four years—would be followed by growing unhappiness with her Government, especially over the poll tax, and her eventual removal from office.
Of the 16 new women Members, 10 represented Labour, five the Conservative party, and one the Liberals, Ray Michie. Rosie Barnes from the SDP had won a by-election on 26 February 1987. In total, there were 40 women in Parliament: 17 Conservatives, 20 Labour Members, and one each from the Liberal party, Social Democratic Party, and Scottish National Party. In 1988 the Liberal party and SDP merged to form the Liberal Democrats.
The Labour MPs entering Parliament for the first time were: Hilary Armstrong for North West Durham, Mildred Gordon for Bow and Poplar; Dawn Primarolo for Bristol South; Joyce Quin for Gateshead East; Maria Fyfe for Glasgow Maryhill; Diane Abbott for Hackney North and Stoke Newington; Alice Mahon for Halifax; Joan Ruddock for Lewisham and Deptford; Mo Mowlam for Redcar; and Joan Walley for Stoke-on-Trent North.
Those taking their seats for the Conservatives were: Teresa Gorman for Billericay; Emma Nicolson for Devon West and Torridge; Ann Widdecombe for Maidstone; Maureen Hicks for Wolverhampton North East and Gillian Shephard for Norfolk South West. Ray Michie, a Liberal who became a Liberal Democrat, was elected for Argyll and Bute.
Three Labour women won mid-term by-elections: Kate Hoey for Vauxhall, on 15 June 1989; Sylvia Heal for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, on 22 March 1990; and Irene Adams for Paisley North, on 29 April 1992.
Quin, former MEP for Tyne South and Wear, recalled that, in 1987, Parliament was much more masculine than anything she had experienced in Europe. For example, when she went to pick up a couple of Order Papers from the Vote Office, she was asked: “How many Members do you work for?”
Many female MPs elected in 1987 went on to hold office and achieve notable firsts for women. Abbott, part of the historic first intake of black MPs, was not only the first black woman MP but would be the first black woman to become shadow Home Secretary and to represent her party at PMQs.
Ten months after being elected to Parliament, Mowlam was promoted to shadow spokesperson for Northern Ireland. She would later oversee the negotiations that led to the historic 1998 Good Friday agreement as the first woman Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
For the Conservatives, Shephard was appointed Secretary of State for Employment in 1992, Minister for Agriculture in 1993, and Secretary of State for Education and Employment in 1994. Widdecombe, too, held a number of key responsibilities, initiating the equalisation of the state pension age and overseeing the legislation on the jobseeker’s allowance.
Thatcher’s legislative accomplishments during her last term as Prime Minister included the Environmental Protection Act 1990. This Act strengthened environmental protections, increased penalties for polluters, and created the first unified regime regulating land, air and water pollution in the UK. However, the community charge, or “poll tax”—a fixed tax on each adult resident to pay for the services in their community—was central to her fall. The change from payment based on the worth of one’s house to a fixed rate was widely viewed as unfair. Labour’s Mahon said that Government action around the tax “might be legal, but…is certainly not moral.”
Following poll tax riots in 1990, a leadership challenge was mounted by Michael Heseltine. Although she won by a margin of 50 votes, Thatcher narrowly missed the threshold to avoid a second vote, and, on 2 November 1990, she announced her resignation. John Major won the second stage of the contest to replace her and took the party through the 1992 election. Although polling predicted a hung Parliament, or even a narrow win for Labour, the Conservatives won, with their overall majority reduced from 102 to 21.
Twenty-one new women MPs entered Parliament. The 14 new Labour Members were: Lynne Jones for Birmingham Selly Oak; Estelle Morris for Birmingham Yardley; Jean Corston for Bristol East; Anne Campbell for Cambridge; Tessa Jowell for Dulwich; Rachel Squire for Dunfermline West; Glenda Jackson for Hamstead and Highgate; Barbara Roche for Hornsey and Wood Green; Bridget Prentice for Lewisham East; Jane Kennedy for Liverpool Broadgreen; Janet Anderson for Rossendale and Darwin; Helen Jackson for Sheffield Hillsborough; Ann Coffey for Stockport; and Angela Eagle for Wallasey.
Six women took Conservative seats: Cheryl Gillan for Chesham and Amersham; Angela Knight for Erewash; Jacqui Lait for Hastings and Rye; Judith Chaplin for Newbury; Lady Olga Maitland for Sutton and Cheam; and Angela Browning for Tiverton. Liz Lynne for Rochdale was the sole Liberal Democrat; she would be joined in 1993 by Diane Maddock, who won the Christchurch by-election. Three Labour women secured by-election wins: Judith Church for Dagenham, on 9 June 1994; Margaret Hodge for Barking, on 9 June 1994; and Helen Liddell, on 30 Jun 1994. Roseanna Cunningham won her byelection for the SNP on 25 Jun 1995.
1992 saw Betty Boothroyd, first elected in 1973, became the first woman Speaker and the first Speaker elected from the Opposition in modern times. Boothroyd served as Speaker until 2000, saying on her election, “I say to you, elect me for what I am and not for what I was born. That is crucial.”
Major faced many challenges, including fights with his party over the EU, an economic crisis, sleaze scandals, by-election defeats and one defection. In 1995, Emma Nicolson defected to the Liberal Democrats, telling the BBC that it was not so much a case of “my leaving the party, but the party leaving me.” Much later, in 2016, she rejoined the Conservatives. Teresa Gorman, elected in 1987, was one of the staunchest opponents of the Maastricht treaty—the foundation treaty of the European Union—and was one of nine Tories to lose the Whip for attempting to prevent, or at least delay, its passage.
Gillan, the longest-serving female Conservative MP, became the first female Secretary of State for Wales—only the fifth elected woman ever to serve in a Conservative Cabinet. Hodge, too, notched up a notable first, as the first female Chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
The end of the period saw the rise of new Labour. Newly elected Tessa Jowell would become one of the most loyal and prominent New Labour politicians. Her main political legacies were her role in the 2012 London Olympics and her campaigning on brain cancer.
This period will see our last blogs for this project, so it is worth looking ahead to 1997 and beyond. Labour’s decision to use all-women shortlists for the selection of candidates at the 1997 election was a major factor in transforming the political landscape. A total of 101 Labour women won seats, along with 13 Conservatives and three Liberal Democrats. All parties would continue to emphasise the importance of increasing the number of women MPs in the general elections that followed. At the time of publication, there are 226 women MPs in Parliament.
Hansard Writing Team
Joyce Quin, The History of Parliament Oral History Project:
Alice Mahon speech on the community charge:
Betty Boothroyd speech on election as Speaker: