Progress deputy director Stephanie Lloyd gives her take on Jacqui Smith’s new book about the women who paved the way
Jacqui Smith is a pioneer. She was the first female member of parliament selected on an all-women shortlist and the first woman home secretary. Having spent some time away from the limelight, she has returned to the political conversation to defend the progress she fought so hard for in government.
Smith left the political arena in 2010 after the Tories won her marginal seat, but since then she has carved out a place for herself in the crowded field of political punditry. Her weekly podcast, For the Many, with ex-Conservative candidate and radio host Iain Dale, has a broad and committed political following. As two friends from two different parties, they do not just bring analysis, but a different way of talking about politics.
But when Smith came to speak with Margaret Beckett at a Progress ‘in conversation’ event last month, the focus was not just on the new ways of doing things, but on those who paved the way. Having Beckett there gave us a privileged window into how women on the left have laid the groundwork for so many legislative victories.
Another theme was rewriting history. Male authors often write women out of major political victories, but Beckett was not too bitter about this: ‘I know that the minimum wage is my greatest achievement because everyone else takes credit for it.’
It seems fitting then, that Smith and Dale’s new book, The Honourable Ladies, is a tribute to these forgotten women of politics and progress. In a political landscape dominated by men who would put themselves forward regardless of how qualified they were, this well-written anthology chronicles the story of every single woman MP between 1918 (when Constance Markievicz was first elected) and 1996. That 168 profiles are included in this first volume – a further 323 women have been elected since – highlights both how much has changed and how much more work there is to do. Each woman has her story narrated by a woman in politics today, bringing to life the modern-day relevance of these challenges.
The path that Smith pioneered just over 20 years ago may now be more well-trodden, but there are many more barriers to be broken. If we believe politics is about trying to hand over the country in a better place to the next generation, then Smith’s new book is an essential read. Written by the pioneers of today, about the pioneers of yesterday, as a message to the next generation.
That was a message perfectly captured by Beckett at the event: ‘Someone at the foreign office told me that they didn’t think a woman should be foreign secretary. I thought that was their problem, not mine.’
Stephanie Lloyd is deputy director of Progress. She tweets @stephanielloyd1
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