Labour's troublesome women: The shadow cabinet vote was a setback for the party's attempts to modernise, says Anna Coote

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The Independent Online
THE LABOUR Party is a contradictory beast. In September Harriet Harman was catapulted on to the National Executive Committee, from nowhere to second place - a big vote of confidence from the constituencies. Out there, it seems, the party members rate her highly. But the lads they send to Parliament are this month in a different mood and have kicked her out of the Shadow Cabinet.

It is hard to know which factor tipped the balance against her. Was it not matching up to Portillo? Or being a middle-class Southerner? Or a high-flying moderniser? Or a woman with three children who hasn't time to fraternise in the bars? Certainly, a significant number of Labour MPs deeply resent having to vote for women at all.

This unexpectedly fierce backlash will probably do little damage to Harriet Harman or Ann Clwyd - who will no doubt bounce back next year. What it has exposed, though, is a real conflict in the party over the problem that has dogged it from its infancy: what to do about women.

Traditionally, Labour and the Tories have taken different routes to the hearts and votes of women. Women inside the Conservative Party were given a role which corresponded to their life at home: they were put in charge of domestic organisation. This was in line with Conservative ideology about women's role in life generally, which set them down squarely at the heart of the family, inhabiting a separate sphere from men, complementing rather than competing with them.

As wives and mothers they have had a special place in defending and upholding the essence of traditional Conservatism. As Ian Gilmour put it in his book Inside Right: 'Conservatives rely chiefly upon the family and private property . . . man is a member of the family before he is a member of anything else. The family is the centre of his affections and the transmitter of traditions.'

When the Tories talk about equal rights for women it never quite rings true, but they have found the hearth-and-home approach quite adequate, and it still stands them in good stead today, Teresa Gorman notwithstanding.

Labour has had more trouble forming a distinctive relationship with women. It has never been able to beat the Tories at the family game, although it has tried. Its only real hope has been to appeal to women not simply as wives and mothers, but as equal citizens. In this sense, it can present itself as a 'natural' home for them, because it has always been identified with egalitarian goals. It inherited the mantle of 19th-century socialist movements which, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote in The Age of Empire, 'provided much the most favourable public environment for women . . . to develop their personalities and talents'. They promised a transformation of society and demanded a change in the 'ancient patterns of the relation between the sexes'.

But the Labour Party was set up with the explicit purpose of representing the trade unions at Westminster, to speak for the organised male working class. Its personality was formed in an exclusively masculine, production-based culture. It was assumed that the unions provided the party with all the working-class connections it needed, and so Labour never developed strong links with people who were not organised, paid workers. For most women, that meant their relationship with Labour was oblique, and relied on a class loyalty that took no account of their relative powerlessness within it.

The first Labour women who made it into Parliament posed no threat to any of this. Some were formidable fighters, but there were far too few to make an impact as women. Things seemed to take a turn for the better in the mid-Seventies, when Harold Wilson's government introduced a substantial programme of equality laws. Labour seemed to be responding to a new mood among women, recognising that they had needs distinct from men's, and votes that mattered.

Still, the old atmosphere hung about the party like smoke from the leader's pipe. Women's demands for equal rights at that time were met without disturbing the balance of power between men and women inside the party. With attention focused chiefly on pay and conditions at work - traditional trade union territory - it was possible to overlook more awkward realities, such as the fact that men still ran the unions and the party. Labour returned fewer women to Parliament in 1979 than in 1945.

In the Eighties, the women's movement began to make its presence felt. In opposition, Labour could no longer be lobbied to pass laws, so the focus shifted. On the one hand, women began to exercise some power in Labour-controlled local authorities; it was always marginal, and 'municipal feminism' received a dreadful hammering in the press, but women were able to make tangible improvements to the work of some local councils and got a taste and some training for power.

At the same time, women looked to the party itself and began to demand changes that would give them a real voice within it. After some vicious battles, not least among women themselves, they won the right to have a woman on every shortlist for selecting a parliamentary candidate. Women very gradually grew stronger in the party, and a record number of female MPs (37) was returned to Parliament in 1992.

New arrangements for electing the Shadow Cabinet this year obliged all members of the PLP to vote for at least four women (while not guaranteeing four women's seats). And it was agreed at the party conference last month that half of the winnable seats at the next general election, and half the seats vacated by retiring Labour MPs, should have all-women shortlists.

After a decade in which Labour was slowly and painfully 'feminised', the nature of women's political demands was also showing signs of change. Demands for equal rights had begun to give way to a new focus on the role of men - and the need for men to adapt to changes in women's lives. As Harriet Harman argues in her book The Century Gap, women had moved on and men had not caught up. In particular, they were not pulling their weight in the family: children were suffering not because more mothers were going out to work, but because fathers were still absent from the home.

This new focus has interesting potential as a pitch to women voters, because it blends Labour's egalitarian appeal with the Tories' domestic message. It also gives a promising new twist to Labour's call for 'full employment' because it holds out the possibility of men as well as women working shorter hours, to combine paid employment with their parenting responsibility. But it hasn't gone down too well in one British workplace where there is a particularly high concentration of absentee fathers. The backwoodsmen in the Parliamentary Labour Party have taken their revenge. It is a setback not just for a couple of female MPs but for the party's attempts to modernise.

The author is the Hamlyn Fellow in Social Policy at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

(Photograph omitted)