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Duncan Sutherland and Yvonne Galligan
The overall results of the 2001 general election left party standings in the House of Commons largely unchanged, and so too there was little movement in the number of women MPs. It was disappointing that the only movement was a decrease - for the first time since 1979 - though the drop from 120 at to 118 was not as great as had been feared (Table 1). Most women MPs seeking re-election were successful and twelve new women have joined their ranks, including a record number from Northern Ireland.
Note: Other includes SDLP, Plaid Cymru, independents and Speakers.
Ninety-one of the 94 incumbent Labour women seeking re-election were returned, the only casualties being backbenchers Fiona Jones (Newark), Christine Butler (Castle Point), and Eileen Gordon, whose Romford seat was one of Labour's narrowest victories in 1997. While none of the women fighting Labour target seats were elected, the four who had been nominated for safe Labour seats were all successful and offset the three losses. Meg Munn was elected for Sheffield Heeley, Ann Picking became MP for East Lothian, Vera Baird succeeded Mo Mowlam in Redcar, and Ann McKechin succeeded Maria Fyfe in Glasgow Maryhill.
None of the thirteen Conservative women MPs seeking re-election were defeated and most who were defending small majorities were able to reverse the swing against their party from 1997, though Virginia Bottomley's majority was further reduced to 1.7%. Angela Watkinson provided the Conservatives with one of their first gains of election night, reclaiming Upminster for the party, but none of the women nominated in the Conservatives' top ten target seats were successful.
The Liberal Democrats not only attained their best overall results since 1929, but also returned a record number of women MPs. Former leadership candidate Jackie Ballard lost her seat in Taunton by a fraction of a percent, but Jenny Tonge and Sandra Gidley retained their seats and three new Liberal Democrat women were elected: Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and Poole North), Sue Doughty (Guildford), and Patsy Calton (Cheadle, which she had contested twice before and finally won by 33 votes). Leader Charles Kennedy expressed his particular satisfaction at the return of five women after the election, though the success rate of Liberal Democrat women - five out of 140 candidates - is the lowest among all the parties in the House of Commons, other than Plaid Cymru. Following the retirement from Westminster of the SNP's two women MPs the party is now reduced to one woman MP. Annabelle Ewing was able to hold Perth for her party after fending off challenges from three women candidates, and after a recount was declared the winner by a mere 48 votes.
The election results in Northern Ireland were far more sensational than in the rest of the UK and among the surprises was the election of three women - the first time since 1970 the voters of Northern Ireland have chosen a woman MP. The first to be declared elected was Lady Hermon, whose 20 per cent majority in North Down was the UUP's second-best result, while the DUP's Iris Robinson (Strangford) and her husband Peter will form Northern Ireland's first married couple in parliament. Although Michelle Gildernew's 53-vote victory in Fermanagh and South Tyrone was the closest in the province it is perhaps appropriate that Sinn Fein should share in the breakthrough, since the first woman elected to the House of Commons was Sinn Fein's Countess Markievicz in 1918. Like Markievicz, Ms Gildernew will not be taking her seat but she, along with the other two women MPs, will no doubt make an impact on the world of Northern Irish politics. This was one of the most dramatic parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland's history, and in addition to the party shift it will also be remembered for the breakthrough made by women.
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