IN THE BEGINNING...
Lesley Abdela looks back at the early days of 
The 300 Group
First published in 300 Group News on 10th Anniversary of the group's launch (1990)

In 1979, once the dust and excitement had settled after the election of Britain's first woman Prime Minister, it seemed more unreasonable than ever that of a total 635 MPs, only 19 were women.

During that same campaign in 1979 I had cut my own teeth as a Parliamentary candidate in East Herts, after two years as a researcher in the House of Commons and House of Lords. In standing for Parliament I had been invited to give talks to a number of women's organisations on how I came to be a Parliamentary candidate and what it was like.

I remember one particular evening talk at the home of a member of the local branch of the National Housewives Register. I came away wondering why so many of those women weren't standing for Parliament too, for whichever political Party they might choose.

Amazingly, despite Britain's first woman in Downing Street, the larger subject of women in politics was simply not in the air.            

Not in the Press. Not in the Media. Not in the political Party newspapers.

Women in politics, a subject whose time I believed had come, was being completely and absolutely overlooked.

Along with Constance Blackwell, an American soon to become a significant 300 Group Trustee we had got into the habit of breakfasting together at a tiny Hampstead cafe after dropping our very small children at a nearby nursery school.

It was at one of these get-togethers that the idea of forming a campaign to turn Britain into a democracy where at least half its legislators were women, was born.

As an advertising executive in the swinging 60s, I knew there was one sure way to test out an idea - 'run it up the flag pole and see who salutes'.

I sent for the list of women's groups on the Equal Opportunities Commission mailing list, writing to 120 of them to suggest a meeting in London.  We set it for 18 September 1980.

Julie Kaufman, Secretary General of Gingerbread was enthused about the idea. She offered us a room for the afternoon in Gingerbread's head offices in Covent Garden.

More than 30 women representatives came. They included the WI, the Townswomen's Guilds, the women's wings of Conservative, Labour and Liberal par­ties.  Between them they represented millions of women. 

They were angered at widespread negative attitudes to women in politics, such as the canard, 'Voters won't vote for a woman'. They were dismayed at the lack of encouragement and training on offer for women by the Parties in those days.

When the ultimate question of the day came, 'Is a new all-party organisation needed?', part pressure group, part training and support group, every single woman in the room raised her hand to say `YES!’

At this time I was just moving out from London to an old house I rented in Oxfordshire. The Mill House, Burford, became the 300 Group's first Headquarters.

What should we call the new group?

Tim Symonds, an erstwhile lecturer in politics at the University of California, who was to act as the first 300 Group press officer, was standing in the stone-paved hall at The Mill House when the idea came to him to divide the total number of MPs at Westminster in two, as a nominal target.

317.5 didn't have the right cachet. We settled on 300.

'Club' sounded too in-groupy. 'Group' sounded a bit martial but it was snappy. We settled on it in the way Hollywood movies start with a shooting title, with the idea of changing it later, but it came to stay.

Our next step was to hold a public meeting.

Former Labour MP Maureen Colhoun suggested we hold it in the largest committee room in the House of Commons - the Grand Committee Room, at the end of the Great Hall.

The first public meeting for the 300 Group, on 25 November 1980, was a tremendous, heart-warming success. Over 400 people flooded in. In the audience were David and Debbie  Owen, Bill and Silvia Rodgers front the then Council for Social Democracy, Gundula Dorey, one of the Leaders of the Greens, Liberal Baroness Seear, Conservative MP Janet Fookes, Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, and Liberal MP’s Richard Wainright and Geraint Howells.

Eight Members of Parliament sat (precariously) on the platform.  93 year-old socialist Lord Brockway, a feminist all his life, was seated literally on the floor until he was discovered there and almost dragged on to the platform too.

Liz Valiance, from Queen Mary College, London, author of the invaluable hook on women in British politics Women in The House and later to be one of the first Trustees, gave the keynote address.

This highly successful first public meeting showed us the interest and the need for an all-party group for women in politics was there.

It also placed on the fragile, and under-resourced early membership, an obligation to fulfill this promise. 

The following letter from Lesley Abdela appeared in the first issue of 300 Group News:

We started the 300 Group in September last year. Since then more than one thousand five hundred women have written to our national HQ. Nearly one thousand have said they would like to stand for Parliament. This scotches once and for all the idea women are not interested in politics.

They most certainly are.

The role of the national HQ is in maintaining cordial and direct relations with the political parties at the very highest levels to see where able, intelligent women can be brought forward in ever-increasing numbers to the most important offices in politics.

Al the local/area/regional levels I foresee women gaining the skills and expertise required to turn them into first-rate Parliamentary or local candidates AND to speed them through the ranks of industry and commerce.

Good presentation, clear thinking, a fine knowledge of British politics - these are comprehensive skills of value throughout life. I do not say it will be easy to redress the imbalance of men and women in Parliament. But I do say it is vital to the welfare of democracy and the nation.

So DO JOIN US!

Very best wishes

Lesley Abdela

 

And as an important PS, we do not expect all of you to want to stand for office.  We need able women in all categories to help in the task.  Your presence in the 300 Group will speed others to the top.

Links:

www.300Group.org.uk

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