The entry of the 1997 cohort of Labour women into public life offers a test case of whether, and under what conditions, women politicians have the capacity to ‘make a substantive difference’. We outlines the theory of the politics of presence and discuss how to operationalise this in a testable model. We, use the British Representation Study survey of 1,000 national politicians (including parliamentary candidates and elected Members of Parliament) conducted in the 2001 general election. The analysis centres on the impact of gender on five scales measuring attitudes and values on issues that commonly divide British party politics.

Once we control for party, there are no significant differences among women and men politicians across the value scales concerning the free market economy, Europe, and moral traditionalism. Yet on the values most directly related to women's interests – namely the affirmative action and the gender equality scales – women and men politicians differ significantly within each party, even after controlling for other common social background variables that explain attitudes, such as their age, education, and income. The conclusion considers why these findings matter for the composition of parliament, the public policy agenda and for women's roles as political leaders.