The intuition Labour lacks

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The Independent Online
GUESS who invented quotas? Nope, it wasn't lesbians, nor loonie lefties. It was the Conservative Party. In the olden days, more than 70 years ago when the Tories were fashioning their future as a modern party, they imposed quotas on their constituency associations to ensure its reputation as a truly representative party.

Labour's ideology, if not its image, promoted social equality. But it was always the butch party. That is the burden of its history. It was built to take the trade union movement's voice into Parliament. But This Great Movement of Ours was actually theirs - The Great Men's Movement, where working men negotiated their compromise with capital at the expense of women.

Of course, embarrassment and controversy surround Labour's bruising efforts to deal with that disgrace. Inequity is so institutionalised in Labourism that it is still having to confront a vested interest that bitterly resents a new deal between men and women. When the row over quotas broke out last week, the beau Blair did not have the confidence to take the side of the women and ask what on earth was wrong with the dozen local parties that couldn't find a woman to go to the greatest event of the party season.

Labour's tragedy is that it did not introduce positive quotas long ago - when the Tories did - and so staunch the haemorrhage of women's support that hascost it elections. On most issues across the political landscape women are the progressive sex, but the sexism of the socialist tradition still does not give them a comfortable and defining place in a progressive party.

It was in the Twenties, when the long march for women's suffrage seemed to be reaching its goal, that the Conservatives entered a decade of democracy by transforming their party conference. Women delegates were admitted to the Tory conference for the first time in 1920. A year later quotas were imposed on local associations: one-third of their delegates had to be women. And the women's organisation was invited to confer with local party agents to 'arrange mutually that the proper number of women representatives be elected'.

The great triumph of modern Conservatism has been its ability to cross the boundaries of class and gender: to be seen to be a party for women was as important to the Tories as it was to be seen to be a party for all classes. Embracing women did not make the Conservative Party egalitarian, but it was Labour that employed the rhetoric of equality, which was never matched by the reality of power in the party.

In 1925, Labour stung the Tories with the charge that no woman had spoken at that year's conference. But the Tories had their own ammunition: women had not been vocal at the Labour Party conference either; and half the 2,000 Tory delegates, but only 60 of the 1,100 Labour delegates, had been women.

The Tory organisation, however, was worried by the passivity of the women members, and during the Twenties it refined conference arrangements to ensure that women would always comprise at least half the number of lay delegates.

But while the Tories were extending women's presence within the party, Labour was still controlling it. Throughout the Twenties, Labour re-enacted a ritual tournament between the organised interests of men and women.

The battle took place over women's reproductive rights. Annually, the Labour women's conference vigorously endorsed working-class women's access to contraception - and annually, at the full party conference, the women's wish was bombed out by the trade union block vote, aka the men's vote.

It was the Tories who intuited that women were too important to leave to the goodwill of men and, more than that, the party's future was too fragile to leave to men. They had already learned that their survival as a modern mass party had been secured by women. A century ago the party structure was thin, centralised and clubby - not the machine they needed to engage the newly enfranchised male masses. But the party was rescued by the Primrose League, a spectacular mass movement, raunchy and glittering, which proved to be women's passport to the hustings, and marked their metamorphosis from hostesses to activists.

In the post-war politics of consensus, women became the mutinous mob of Toryism. And the agenda in which they asserted themselves was law and order.

In the Eighties, when Labour attempted to steal the Tories' law-and-order thunder, the party's campaign was anchored almost entirely in women's experience. How odd, then, that Mr Blair's campaign on law and order has not advanced that gendered initiative. He has neither exposed the equation between crime and masculinity nor, in his appeal to community, has he created an alliance with women, who, everyone knows, form the spine of community self-help and active citizenship.

Labour's obsession is electability, but it still does not seem to see the connection between women and winning. The party used to think it could win with working- class men. Now it seems to think it can win with the men of the middle class. What it doesn't know is how to win with the women of all classes.