Barbara Follett was the Labour Party MP for Stevenage (1997 – 2010). Like many of her parliamentary colleagues, she had overcome difficulties in life to become a Labour MP. But she is unusual in the way she has drawn on her misfortune and experience to strengthen the Labour Party. She is also one of the few MPs who have played a major part in transforming the image of Labour, primarily through practical steps to increase the number of women MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Barbara Follett was born in Kingston, Jamaica on Christmas Day 1942. Her father, Vernon Hubbard was from Manchester and went to the Caribbean to set up the local branches of a British insurance company. In 1946 he returned to Britain with Barbara, her mother and her sister. After a year in Jersey, where Barbara's brother was born, they settled in Billericay, Essex. In 1952 the family moved again, to Ethiopia, where Vernon Hubbard set up the country's first insurance company in partnership with Emperor Haile Selassie.
Travel and the Ethiopian setting made Barbara an unconventional teenager. But travel and the Ethiopian setting also, in part, led to her father's alcoholism. In 1957, at a banquet given by the Emperor for Yugoslavia's President Tito, Mr Hubbard fell into a drinks trolley during the loyal toast. This was deemed an insult to the emperor and Hubbard was asked to leave the country. The family went to Cape Town, where Barbara finished her schooling and began a university degree in art. But, by 1962 drinking cost her father his job so Barbara went to work for Barclays Bank to supplement the money her mother earned as a shop assistant. The degree had to be put off for 30 years.
Marriage and children
In 1963 Barbara married Richard Turner. They went to Paris where he did a doctorate, she taught at the Berlitz School of Languages (1963-64) and their daughter Jann was born (1964). They returned to South Africa in 1966 to run his mother's fruit farm in Stellenbosch. A second daughter, Kim, was born in 1968. The same year Barbara's broken father died at the age of 56.
The unconventional teenager had become a conventional white South African farmer's wife but there was an unconventional young woman inside her, plotting escape. Barbara was about to meet a turning point in her life. In those days South African farm workers were paid little and partly in wine. Alcoholism, a scourge Barbara knew only too well, and malnutrition, were rife among farm hands and their families. One day in 1969 a young farm worker's wife came to Barbara with her baby son suffering from bronchial pneumonia. The baby died in Barbara's arms. Barbara went to work for Kupugani (Zulu for "uplift yourself") a scheme which bought up and processed some of South Africa's huge agricultural surplus and then sold it very cheaply to poor families. It also provided basic health education.
In 1970 the marriage to Turner broke down. He went to teach in Durban. She took their girls to Cape Town and became acting Regional Secretary at the Institute of Race Relations, then worked for Kupugani again, first as Regional Manager – Cape and Namibia (1971-74), then National Health Education Director (1975-78). On the rebound Barbara was briefly married to psychologist Gerald Stonestreet. In 1974 she married architect Les Broer and they had a son, Adam (1975). Barbara's ex-husband Richard, a critic of the apartheid regime was "banned" in 1973 and forbidden to travel. On January 8th (ANC Day) 1978 Jann and Kim, then 13 and 9, were staying with their father when he was assassinated in the early hours of the morning in their bedroom.
Three months later, Barbara, who was now running the Women's Movement for Peace was told that she too was about to be "banned". Barbara and family fled to England and lived in Farnham, Surrey. Barbara found work as Assistant Course Organiser and a lecturer on Africa for the Farnham-based Centre for International Briefing (1980-84) and joined the local Labour Party.
In 1983 Barbara was Labour's unsuccessful general election candidate in Woking. The difficulties she experienced then as a woman candidate convinced her that women should get additional help to fight elections. She also got to know local novelist Ken Follett. She married Ken in 1985 (and gained two stepchildren).
From 1984 to 1992 Barbara Follett was a freelance lecturer and consultant on cross-cultural management. She contested Epsom and Ewell for Labour in 1987. Again unsuccessful, and still unhappy with inequality in the system, she turned her mind to the problems of women candidates. She joined the Fawcett Society and the National Alliance of Women's Organisations
With three other women she founded the Labour Women's Network in 1987 and has served on its Steering Committee ever since. Later, she was inspired by women in the USA who, in 1985, founded EMILY's List, which raised funds for women Democrat candidates and was so-called because Early Money Is Like Yeast (it makes the dough rise!). Barbara imported the idea into Britain for the Labour Party. She became the Director of EMILY's List UK in 1993 and since then it has backed 52 women seeking selection.
During this period Barbara obtained a BSc.(Econ) in Economic History at the LSE. She was selected as the candidate in Stevenage (1995) before her postgraduate course could get under way. She concentrated instead on work as Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research (1993-97).
Barbara's younger daughter, Kim, herself had a daughter, Alexandra, in 1993. It was then Barbara discovered that pre-eclampsia was a hereditary family condition which had killed a sibling Barbara never knew, nearly killed the young Barbara, and, later, Kim and Alexandra. It can be detected and managed with regular tests in pregnancy. It is typical of Barbara that, after Kim's scare, she became a patron of Action on Pre-Eclampsia (APEC), an organisation for raising awareness of the condition and the need for testing.
In Parliament, as ever deploying her interests and the trials of her life to best effect for the Party, Barbara went on the Select Committee on International Development (July 1997), as well as becoming Chair of the All Party Retail Industry Group; Chair of the Eastern group of Labour MPs; Chair of the Eastern Region of Labour Movement in Europe; Vice-Chair of the Parliamentary Film Industries Group; a member of Labour's backbench Treasury Committee; Joint Secretary of the Population, Development and Reproductive Health Group; and Treasurer of the Sex Equality Group.
In May 1999 Barbara became a member of the Britain in Europe Council, and she serves on the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons. In June 2005 she was elected as Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) Women's Committee. Between June 2005 and May 2006 she was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Women, the Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP.
In May 2006 she became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Women, the Rt Hon Ruth Kelly MP. In June 2007 she was appointed Minister for the East of England, and in October 2007 was appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Equality, supporting the Minister for Women and Equalities, The Rt. Hon. Harriet Harman. She served as Minister for Culture, Creative Industries & Tourism between October 2008 and September 2009 and is currently Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Barbara is also a member of the British-American Parliamentary Group, the Fabian Society Research Committee, the Socialist Environmental Research Association, Liberty and Charter 88.
While many of her areas of concern have led to numerous official positions, Barbara has other interests, including Scrabble, photography and Star Trek. As a former art student, Barbara is fascinated by the work of Johannes Itten, the colour theorist who taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, from 1919 to 1923. Harnessing this interest to assist Labour, Barbara Follett pioneered presentation training in the Labour Party, teaching senior Labour figures the science of colour and some of the requirements of a TV and fashion conscious age.
So closely associated was she with this smartening-up of Labour that it has been called "Folletting". With husband, Ken, Barbara has helped raise substantial funds for the Labour Party. If somebody ever devises a way to make Scrabble or Star Trek work for the Labour Party, we can be sure Barbara Follett will be guiding the operation, while still finding as much time as possible for her and Ken to spend with their five children – Kim, Jann, Marie-Claire, Adam and Emanuele – and six grandchildren – Alexandra, Clementine, Neo, Django, Rose Charlotte and Coco.
Barbara Follett MP and family
|Jann Turner (right) is the author of two novels – Heartland and Southern Cross. She directed and produced a television documentary, 'My father, Rick Turner', screened on the 25th anniversary of his assassination, and the 2009 film White Wedding.
>> Visit Jann's web site at http://www.jannturner.co.za/
|Barbara is a member of several organisations in addition to those mentioned above.
>> Learn more
|Original biography written by Rex Osborn and extracted from The Dictionary of Labour Biography, edited by Greg Rosen and published in October 2001 by Politicos in association with the Fabian Society and the AEEU.|