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A woman for Warley

A woman for Warley

🕔08.Aug 2013

A few days ago our branch Labour Party formally endorsed John Spellar as our choice to be Labour’s candidate for Warley at the next General Election.

However we also overwhelmingly passed a resolution suggesting that when John finally stands down Warley Labour Party should volunteer to have an all-women’s shortlist (AWS) from which to choose our next parliamentary candidate. This is a device the party has chosen to increase the representation of women in parliament and in a future Labour government.

Choosing those seats which have AWS can sometimes be a fraught issue within the Labour Party. Every aspiring Labour politician dreams of having a “safe” seat from which to launch a political career that may propel him into ministerial office and possibly the cabinet. But when people suggest that a candidate for a safe seat should be a “her” all sorts of representations and objections are made.

At the last election John won Warley with an absolute majority over all other candidates of 10,700. Warley is about as “safe” as any seat can be, so envious male eyes are already being cast over the future parliamentary candidature.

Yet the areas which make up Warley came within a few hundred votes of returning the first women MPs. The constituency consists of two communities Oldbury and Smethwick.

In the 1918 General Election women over 30 were allowed to vote for the first time. A few weeks before the election legislation was pushed though at the last moment to allow women to stand on the same basis as men.

It was well known that Mary MacArthur, the leader of the women’s chainmakers’ strike was to stand as Labour candidate for the Stourbridge division which included modern day Oldbury.

But just days before nominations closed Christobel Pankhurst, daughter of the formidable Emmeline arrived in the newly created borough constituency of Smethwick to announce that she would stand as a Woman’s Party candidate against both selected male Labour and Unionists candidates.

This was the “coupon” election by which the coalition supported certain approved candidates. Emmeline put considerable pressure on the Liberal leader Lloyd George and Unionist leader Bonar Law to award the coupon in Smethwick to her daughter. Bonar Law resolved the issue by writing to the Unionist asking him to stand down in favour of Christobel Pankhurst, creating a grievance which rankled with Smethwick Unionists for many years.

Pankhurst’s candidature had an impact in neighbouring Stourbridge. Mary MacArthur was diverted from her campaign to support Labour in Smethwick in their efforts to win the votes of the newly enfranchised women. Pankhurst was getting considerable support from the national press and had a campaign chest twice that of her trade union sponsored opponent.

The only national publicity MacArthur achieved came as a result of the returning officer for Stourbridge insisting  her married name Anderson should appear on the ballot paper.

Both Pankhurst and MacArthur came within 1,000 votes of taking their respective seats. But parliamentary representation for Warley has been resolutely male ever since.

However potential women candidates would be advised not to make a rush for Warley. What price would Ladbrokes give on John Spellar being “father of the house” sometime in the 2030s?

 David Hallam is a former Labour MEP.

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