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Have the feminists won, or did Blairism see us off?

NEC member Christine Shawcroft looks at the history of women’s organisation in the Labour Party.

When I first tried setting up local women’s organisations in the Labour Party, it was the late 70s and they were generally known as Ladies’ Sections. The word “women” was considered rather uncouth. You needed the agreement of your (overwhelmingly male) GC, or General Management Committee (GMC) as it was then. We had to go cap in hand and plead with an uncomprehending GMC for permission to set up a women’s section. They were absolutely mystified: why would a group of women want to meet? Who would they be making the tea for: each other?

When I moved to London in the early 80s, the story was slightly different. There were many more younger members, as the activism of the times seeped into the Party – most of whom considered themselves feminists. Naturally, they wanted to meet in women’s groups – something they had been organising, in many cases, before they joined the Party. Unfortunately, the established women’s groups – to suit existing women members, who were mostly housewives or retired – met in the daytime. When new women members asked their GMCs for permission to set up a Women’s Section, they were told to go to the ones which already existed.

The young working women couldn’t go to meetings held in the daytime, and the older women were unwilling to go out at night. For a while there was an impasse, until some clever comrade pointed out there were no prescriptions on the boundaries for Women’s Sections: the existing groups became Daytime Women’s Sections, and working women could set up Evening Women’s Sections. For a few years, it was common for women to stand up at Regional or Women’s Conferences and introduce themselves as being from such and such Evening Women’s Section. Eventually Women’s Sections meeting in the evening became the norm – and very active they became, too.

By the mid-80s, there was a large network of Women’s Sections across the country, and many CLPs set up Women’s Councils, with delegates from Women’s Sections (often branch rather than CLP based), locally affiliated trades unions and women’s organisations to co-ordinate all this feminist activity. Attendance at National Women’s Conference more than doubled (not least after the Newcastle Conference in 1982, which we threatened to occupy if the crèche didn’t stay open till the end of the conference session rather than closing at 5pm).

Women debated and passed their own policy, usually more radical than that of Annual Conference. One Women’s Conference was held on the Island of Bute (surely the only national meeting for which the pooled fare included a ferry ticket – no pun intended). If HQ thought the journey would deter London feminists, they were wrong. We turned up as usual and that was the year that, together with our sisters from all over the country, we became the first part of the national party to vote for troops to be withdrawn from Ireland.

Feminism was thriving in the women’s organisation, but how could we take it into the wider Party? A group of women delegates to Annual Conference occupied the MPs’ seats – showing everyone how unusual it looked to lose the male domination, and some women members of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) set up the Women’s Action Committee (WAC) to take the campaign further. WAC’s main demands included:

  • Women’s Conference should be able to send five resolutions to Annual Conference (there being no link whatsoever between the two);
  • there should be at least one woman on every Parliamentary shortlist;
  • that the five women’s places on the National Executive Committee should be elected by national Women’s Conference, instead of by male and female annual conference delegates.

These demands were overwhelmingly supported by women’s organisations – but winning them in the party was another matter. Eventually, Annual Conference agreed that there should be one woman on every shortlist “if a woman had been nominated”. Ending all-male shortlists was positive, but implementation of the policy revealed its shortcomings. This was no breakthrough allowing women to be seen as equally plausible parliamentary candidates: executives, still largely male, put a woman on their shortlists, but felt no need to add any more. Even if she didn’t have “token woman” physically tattooed on her forehead, selection meetings knew why she was there.

Women formulated a new demand: for All-Women Shortlists in a number of seats, including safe ones. That was eventually agreed and has had a checkered history, but at least once a CLP knows it is going to select a woman it can turn its mind to selecting the best one. The Party is now very different and the huge tide of feminism which swept through it in the 80s and early 90s has ebbed. Partly this is due to the fact that all forms of activism have been choked off as party managers have closed off democratic routes throughout it and stifled grassroots voices. But the hierarchy also realised that they were on a hiding to nothing if they kept denying women’s demands: we just got more angry, and better organised, and kept coming back.

They turned their minds to finding ways to grant some of the demands, but take the sting out of them. For this reason, some bright spark dreamed up quotas. The Women’s Organisations never called for quotas. Our principle was always that women’s representatives should be elected by, and accountable to, other women, otherwise they aren’t women’s representatives at all – they are representatives who happen to be women.

Reserved seats for women’s organisations meant that women had to come to Women’s Sections, win the support of women members, report back to them and face re-election a year later – the basic pattern of accountability for representatives. Under quotas, individual women looking for a career in the Party can make it clear to local party hierarchies that they aren’t going to threaten the status quo. They are then elected with the support of the men who still run the Party.

The process has become easier as women’s membership and participation in the Party (cause and effect, anyone?) has dwindled and branches and GCs are often desperate to find women’s names to make their delegations valid. We have become the token woman all over again! Quotas for all delegates and officers in the Party undermined the Women’s Sections.

When the NEC was re-organised in 1997 to try and keep left candidates out of the CLP section, the five women’s seats were abolished in favour of introducing quotas in the new trade union and CLP sections. The Women’s Conference was abolished because it was “too expensive”, although it had been making a profit for the Party. The one day Women’s Conference, originally run alongside the Youth and Spring Conferences but now held the day before Annual Conference, is a glorified training session and bears no resemblance to the previous Conference.

The outcome of the quota system – together with other forms of tightening central control, particularly under Blair – has ensured that although more women parliamentary candidates are being selected, they are almost exclusively non-threatening supporters of the leadership. The “Blair babes” elected in 1997 may have benefited from two decades of feminist campaigning in the Labour Party, but they sure as hell didn’t represent it.

You think the fight for equality in the Party is over? A friend of mine recently moved house. When he went to the first meeting of his new branch, it was all men. Then a woman member appeared, and was promptly asked to make the tea. I am not making this up. The question of how we take the fight for equality forward, though, is very open.

The token national conference and the abolition of regional women’s conferences (yes, we had them too, every year – and Regional Women’s Committees) means women have too few chances to come together and formulate a new set of demands for change. Women’s issues are not prominent in mainstream left organisations such as CLPD. What do readers think? Perhaps we should discuss this.Maybe we can do so through Left Futures?

This article first appeared in the original Labour Briefing

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