HOW TO BE A LADY IN THE HOUSE
Article for The Lady magazine
By EDWINA CURRIE
I'm cheering. We have a record number of women in the House of Commons: 142 lady members, many brand new. Very different to my first day in 1983, when only 23 were elected, including our first female Prime Minister.
Dave's Tories have done brilliantly with numbers more than doubled from 18 to 48; Labour's have dropped, though 81 still made it. There are four from Northern Ireland, one SNP from Scotland and Caroline Lucas, the sole Green. Lib Dems are in disgrace with only seven females. They couldn't find any women for the Cabinet either: shame on them, say I.
If you've tramped the streets, wowed the hustings and survived a seven-hour count, you probably feel you don't need any advice. But as you trot through Westminster Hall, past brass plaques where William Wallace met his death and Charles I was condemned, you may reflect that those thousand-year-old beams overhead have seen off stronger souls. So lend an ear.
The first thing is to find the loos. There aren't enough, and ritzy they are not. My favourite was a cubby hole behind the Speaker's Chair; I could slide out looking purposeful, as if heading for a meeting rather than needing to hitch my knickers. The men have loos in the voting lobbies, where they disappear if they're being difficult. One desperate night, we ladies decided needs must; along with Betty Boothroyd I helped barricade the door so that the women could make use of it. Only then did the men agree we could take half.
One tip: if you are in Number 10 for a meeting, then ask to use the Prime Minister's own loo. It's lined in gold, very naff. Or at least, it was in John Major's day.
What to wear? In town you need to dress to impress. Sorry, but that probably means more like a newsreader or Margaret Thatcher than you'd like. Power dressing may not be necessary for Sam Cam or Michelle Obama, but they're wives, and you're an MP. Square your shoulders, fasten your buttons, get your hair cut. And, even if you're proud of it, don't flash your cleavage; look what happened to Jacquie Smith on her first day as Home Secretary. If a woman doesn't look as if she is on top of the job, the punters won't think she is either.
A seat far from London carries its own hazards. I was once asked in an interview what problems women MPs faced, and answered casually, "The clean underwear is in one place and I'm 200 miles away - and never finding a pair of tights without holes in them." Next day a large box arrived from Courtaulds, a local company with dozens of pairs of Aristoc and a note: "Can't have one of our MPs in that state." I declared them in the Register of Members' Interests as "Black hosiery (seamed)..", and thus began my racy reputation.
Leave the killer heels at home. There are two miles of corridor in the Palace of Westminster, mostly cold stone. You don't want bunions really, do you? Just think of the snide remarks about Sarah Brown's toes. If your feet are killing you, and you kick your shoes off under the committee desk, someone is sure to take a surreptitious picture.
Always wear your make-up. NEVER answer the door in your nightie. You never know when you're on the telly. And you will be, let alone an international laughing stock on YouTube. Whether you have two economics degrees (as I did) or had a dominatrix job in the City or just managed three lowly GCSEs, from here onwards, you're a target. It's no good saying you didn't realise; the goldfish bowl has you swimming inside it, and nothing makes the headlines like a female MP making a fool of herself.
So drive carefully. However much they irritate you, don't try to run down your constituents. I promise if you have an accident, it'll be all over the Daily Mail tomorrow, and you won't like it one bit. Soon after I was elected, local mothers came to me with complaints about speeding outside a primary school. Fine, said I, we'll have a police speed trap. Next Monday morning I drove past to find it - and was caught myself, doing 38mph in a 30mph zone. The young officer who stopped my car looked as if he wished the ground would open in front of him; but I did say, rather glumly, "It's a fair cop" (never argue with policemen. They are voters too).
The headlines brought different responses. Women in my patch were predictably furious, but the men rather liked it. For weeks afterwards blokes would come sidling up to me, wink, and say, "You gonna take me for a ride then, duck?"
Then there is alcohol. NEVER get drunk - that's a real no-no. Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevan used to advise young MPs to "Specialise, and stay out of the bars." It may look like a glamorous job but it has its longueurs; you can be hanging about for hours waiting to vote, probably in the 26 bars and restaurants in the Palace, all heavily subsidised (not even Dave and Nick are going to change that). The occupational hazards are the three As - Arrogance, Alcoholism and Adultery. If you suffer from only one, it's thought you're doing quite well.
The best advice I had was from an old-timer who said, "Start as you mean to go on. Don't give bottles of whisky as raffle prizes or everyone'll expect that and it can cost a fortune. Plus, don't set up an advice bureau every week if you ever want a weekend off." He might have added for a woman MP, that it's wise to have somebody handy at the surgery. One beefy chap came to protest to me about new laws against the ownership of hand-guns, carrying a cardboard box full of Heckler & Kochs. He waved them round with assertions that they could do no harm and complained I was putting him out of business. Another guy decided I was just the gal for him, and turned up with porn to show me what he had in mind. Fortunately my agent, a former copper, was bigger than him, but it left me shaky for a week.
You'll be too busy to get involved in a dalliance, of course. Don't even think of it: affairs with work colleagues in the Commons are as doomed as elsewhere. But here's a tip from one who knows. If you have a secret to keep, don't tell anybody. Not in a word, a look, a hint. Parliament is a hive of professional gossips, but you can misbehave if you are careful. Just don't expect anyone to be on your side if you are found out. Like the world at large, double standards operate, and the woman will get the blame.
In the end it's a terrific job. You can do worthy things, you can help people, you have a ringside seat for history, even (with luck) make history yourself. Disraeli called being an MP a sacred trust, and he was right. Enjoy yourself, but never forget that we are watching.
here to print this page