Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Women and New LabourEngendering politics and policy?$

Claire Annesley, Francesca Gains, and Kirstein Rummery

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9781861348289

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781861348289.001.0001

Show Summary Details

Framing claims for women: from ‘old’ to ‘new’ Labour

Framing claims for women: from ‘old’ to ‘new’ Labour

(p.63) Four Framing claims for women: from ‘old’ to ‘new’ Labour
Women and New Labour

Lovecy Jill

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter reviews the stance of the Labour Party on women and feminising politics from so-called ‘old’ to New Labour, illustrating how feminist activists within the party were able to mobilise their demands. The British Labour Party was participating in a rising trend among its sister social-democratic parties, particularly in Europe. The focuses of the episode of strategic framing include collective empowerment of women within the party, empowering executive representation, and empowering individual women party members. It is shown that changes in the party's evolving opportunity structures had less of a direct impact on how feminist activists sought to extend the party's policy commitments to women from the late 1970s through until the early 1990s.

Keywords:   British Labour Party, feminising politics, feminist activists, women, executive representation, party members


As noted in Chapter One, it was the adoption of AWS that secured New Labour’s dramatic gender breakthrough in the June 1997 elections, when it virtually trebled the number of women MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) from 37 to 101. The party’s resort to this strong measure of positive discrimination was sealed under John Smith’s leadership at the party’s 1993 Annual Conference, in the immediate aftermath of the party’s fourth successive electoral defeat in 1992 (Short 1996, 19–21; Russell 2005, 111–5). Crucially, what AWS offered was a means of operationalising gender quotas within the framework of the UK’s single-member constituency, first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system. In adopting AWS, the 1993 Conference committed the party to achieving a 50% quota in two categories of winnable seats: vacant safe seats, where a Labour MP was retiring at the next election; and the party’s target marginals that it needed to win if it was to secure a working majority.

In the event, an industrial tribunal ruling (discussed further later) in January 1996 forced the party to abandon this procedure before it had completed its countrywide selection process. Nevertheless, as Table 4.1 shows, the bulk (35) of the party’s 54 women MPs elected in these two categories of seats owed their selection to AWS; while a further seven were beneficiaries of ‘informal’ AWS procedures concluded after the tribunal ruling. The result was that whereas women comprised just 15% of the incumbent Labour MPs re-elected in June 1997 and 17% of the MPs elected in the ‘surprise-gain’ category, where AWS had not been implemented, in its non-incumbent safe and target seats the party was able to achieve women candidacy levels of 34% and 51% respectively and went on to win all of these seats.

AWS was devised and adopted as the post-1992 sequel to a much larger ‘package’ of gender reforms within the party’s internal organisation that (p.64) had been put together in the latter years of Neil Kinnock’s leadership, following the party’s previous defeat in 1987. Adopted at the Party’s Annual Conferences between 1989 and 1992, these reforms introduced an extensive, rolling programme of mandatory gender quotas (of between 40% and 50%) for positions of responsibility at all levels of the party: from local wards through to constituency parties up to delegates to the Annual Conference, members of National Executive Committee (NEC) and the new National Policy Forum (Perrigo 1995, 413–5; Russell 2005, 102–9). The PLP also introduced a modest gender quota (three out of 18 seats) for elections to the Shadow Cabinet from 1989 and in that year the Annual Conference had set the party the target of achieving gender balance in the PLP within 10 years or after three elections (Short 1996, 18–19).

Table 4.1: Labour’s new women MPs in June 1997 (by type of seat and selection process)

Type of seat

All women shortlist

Open shortlist

By-election panel

Number of women selected

Number of men elected

Total number of seats

Women as % of candidates

















Surprise gain
















Note: * informal AWS: completed after January 1996

Source: adapted from Eagle and Lovenduski (1998, 9–10)

How can we best explain the Labour Party’s development of these policies and its commitment to securing, and sustaining over the longer term, a much more substantial representation of women within the party’s own policy-making processes and a gender rebalancing of its parliamentary representation? As Russell emphasises, a simple leadership-driven account is clearly inadequate: ‘[W]omen’s quotas were never part of the project of either of its famously modernising leaders. Indeed both Kinnock and Blair were resistant to moves towards positive action’ (Russell 2005, 125).

Instead, studies of this period all demonstrate the key role of women’s agency within the party in getting policies of positive action and positive discrimination onto the party’s agenda (Perrigo 1995, 1996, (p.65) 1999; Lovenduski 2005, 109–21; Russell 2005, 96–128). But how did women’s agency operate within the Labour Party in this period? What kind of demands were put forward within the party – in respect of women’s representation and of other substantive policy commitments relating to women and gender issues, when and why? How did these demands evolve over time in the two decades prior to 1997? In order to address these questions in this chapter I will employ an institutionalist analytic framework similar to that set out in Chapter One for analysing public policy, but adapted here to capture the dynamics of policy framing within a quite differently constituted political space, that of a political party.

The British Labour Party in comparative context

Before outlining this analytic framework, some preliminary points should be made setting developments within the Labour Party in their wider comparative context. A first point here is that both in adopting these reforms and in the sequence in which it adopted them – establishing internal gender quotas within the party before moving on to parliamentary candidacy selection quotas – the Labour Party aligned itself on broader international trends of this period. Research undertaken in the early 1990s showed that, worldwide, gender quotas were more extensively used internally, within parties’ own structures, than for their parliamentary representation (IPU 1994). Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s, 84 parties in 36 different states are recorded as having established formal quotas in their parliamentary candidate selection processes (IPU 1997).

More specifically, the British Labour Party was participating in a rising trend among its sister social democratic parties, particularly in Europe. It is true that from the 1960s, the Swedish Social Democratic Party had built up its impressive record of women’s representation in its parliamentary party and in government (discussed in Chapter Three) employing only informal means of positive discrimination (Sainsbury 1993, 279–82). But in 1983, the Norwegian Labour Party (DNA) opted in contrast for a formal parliamentary gender quota and another five parties – the Austrian Socialist Party (1985), Dutch Labour Party (1987), German Social Democratic Party (1988), Italian Democratic Left (1989) and Irish Labour Party (1991)1 – had followed suit before the British Labour Party did so in 1993 (Caul 2001, 1220–1).

Moreover, at the regional level, interplaying with these developments, a broader process of European norm construction can also be observed. This got underway from 1986 as the Council of Europe focused (p.66) on the need for positive action to achieve much enhanced levels of presence and participation by women in public life at the national level in Europe as ‘a sine qua non of democracy and an imperative of social justice’; these normative claims were also subsequently taken up within the European Union (Lovecy 2002, 280–3). However, from the mid-1990s, in the aftermath of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, 1995, this ‘politics of women’s presence’ agenda (Philips 1995) was to be increasingly displaced at the regional level in Europe by the rather different strategy of ‘gender mainstreaming’ (Pollack and Hafner-Burton 2000; Lovecy 2002, 279–81), developments which the concluding section of this chapter will return to and which are examined further in Chapter Five.

Comparative research on parliamentary candidacy quotas and internal party quotas also sheds light on where the British Labour Party’s experience has been more mainstream, and where it has been most distinctive. Quantitative cross-national research has, for example, found the timing of the adoption of parliamentary quotas to be most positively correlated, first, with a greater number of women sitting on a party’s highest decision-making body and, second, with a party having leftist values (Caul 2001, 1226–7). However, in the case of AWS, the NEC’s decision to recommend this to the 1993 Annual Conference was taken when the new internal party quota rules had produced only a modest increase, from five to eight women out of 29 NEC members (Russell 2005, 107). Nevertheless, the bulk of the larger package of internal gender quotas was adopted in 1989/90 when, for the first time, the Labour NEC had a woman chair, Jo Richardson. More intriguingly, this quantitative research does not support the hypothesis that a shift from old to new Left is of itself a favourable factor, the correlation with leftist values being as strong for parties with ‘old’ as for those with ‘new’ Left values (Caul 1999, 87–8; Caul 2001, 1225). A third finding relates to a ‘contagion effect’ deriving from the prior adoption of parliamentary candidacy quotas by a competitor party. There is some limited evidence for such party-system competitive dynamics having influenced the British Labour Party in the mid- to late 1980s.2 However, a different form of contagion effect can be identified, through lesson-drawing from the successful implementation of internal party gender quotas in other member-parties of the Socialist International. Such lesson-drawing was facilitated by representatives from these parties being invited in 1988 to address the Women’s Conference and also an Annual Conference fringe meeting (Russell 2005, 104), through publications (Brooks et al 1990) and via the involvement in the NEC’s Women’s Committee from 1990 of Clare Short, who was active in the women’s section of (p.67) the Socialist International (serving as its vice-president from 1992) and had been elected as an MP in 1983. She was to chair that committee in 1992, when it was tasked by John Smith with preparing proposals for implementing the 1989 Conference’s 50–50 gender target for the PLP (Short 1996, 18; Russell 2005, 103–4).

The very real difficulties that FPTP posed for implementing parliamentary quotas in the UK is underlined by other research findings, positively correlating higher levels of women’s parliamentary representation with proportional representation systems using larger multi-member districts (Norris 1993, 312–15; Matland and Studlar 1996). And whereas the cross-national data identifies more localised control over candidate nomination as being conducive to higher levels of women’s parliamentary representation (Caul 1999, 80–1, 85), in contrast, the UK’s electoral system meant that the party would need instead to shift control over the candidate selection process upwards from the constituency level, in order to implement a gender quota (as discussed further later in the chapter).

Another body of qualitative research has been more directly concerned with addressing the issue of women’s agency, employing process-tracing in single-party and single-country case studies.3 Its methodologies and main findings are broadly consistent with the studies of women and gender in the British Labour Party in this period (Perrigo 1995, 1996, 1999; Lovenduski 2005,109–21; Russell 2005, 96–128). This research points to the arrival within the mainstream parties, and most especially those of the Left, of newer generations of women bringing with them the mobilising ideas of second-wave feminism of the late 1960s and 1970s. It also underlines the more or less prolonged periods of activist mobilisation that were required to open up a space on party agendas for a varied range of positive action and positive discrimination policies (notably Lovenduski and Norris 1993). Characteristically, these feminist activists are shown to have developed pragmatic practices drawing on the two competing principles of equality and difference, outlined in Chapter Two. Sainsbury terms this a ‘dual strategy’ of working both through separate women’s sections – where these existed within parties – and also through their male-dominated mainstream structures (Sainsbury 1993, 279). But what these studies bring out, above all, is the complexity of the processes of adjustment and accommodation operating between the nature of women’s claims and the strategies used to press them, on the one hand, and party responses, in terms of programmatic and organisational change, on the other (Lovenduski 1993, 4–15).

(p.68) Strategic framing and the political opportunity structures of the Labour Party

In order to ‘unpack’ these complex processes as they operated within the Labour Party during its long period of 18 years in opposition, this chapter takes as its central organising focus a concept drawn from the comparative social movements literature, that of strategic framing. This will enable the author to establish an overall argument about the pattern of gendered policy commitments developed by the Labour Party in the context of its renewal and modernisation in the 1980s and 1990s that marries in with the central concerns of the book and sets the scene for the chapters that follow, examining how New Labour has acted in government.

Strategic framing has been developed in the comparative social movements literature as one of a set of three key concepts, along with political opportunity structures and mobilising structures, in order to model how social movement actors pursue normative change, and with what success, within a variety of institutional contexts (McAdam et al 1996; Smith et al 1997). This literature reflects the institutional turn in comparative politics in positing that the extent of social movement mobilisations and the forms of their collective claims are shaped by the broader set of political opportunities and constraints unique to the specific institutional context in which a given movement is embedded (McAdam et al 1996, 2–3). It therefore offers a theoretical perspective cognate to that outlined in Chapter One, which can be applied here to analyse the role of actors influenced by the mobilising ideas of second-wave feminism, but who sought to engage with the wider public policy domain by engaging in the internal policy processes of a mainstream UK political party and re-shaping its public policy commitments. After mapping out how this approach can be applied to the Labour Party, the following two sections of the chapter will employ it in respect of representational and substantive policy claims for women, to account for the evolving ways in which these two types of claim came to be framed in the Labour Party from the late 1970s.

The concept of strategic framing itself focuses on the institutional incentives for (relatively resource-poor) ‘outsider’ actors to shape their claims in ways that ‘resonate’ and are congruent with the established policy concerns and preferences of (resource-richer) ‘insider’, and especially elite, actors; such framing enables them to engage in alliance-building and, as part of a wider policy advocacy coalition, to gain access to, and weight within, key decisional venues. In the case of feminists who brought to the Labour Party a gendered understanding of power and policy, this theoretical perspective means that the representational and (p.69) substantive policy claims they have constructed over time, and also the mobilising structures in which they have sought to organise themselves, are to be treated as dependent variables of the analysis, to be explained by reference to the particular constraints and opportunities provided by shifting organisational and ideational features of the Labour Party, and its wider political environment, at successive points in time. This approach therefore posits that the extent to which the different competing feminist principles surveyed in Chapter Two got taken up within the Labour Party, and when they did so, depended largely on how feminist actors responded to shifting opportunities for alliance-building in the party.

Applying the comparative social movements literature to the Labour Party, we can identify four key dimensions (McAdam et al 1996, 10 and 23–4) of its political opportunity structures, and changes within them over time, that served to shape the behaviour of feminist actors within the party in this period:

  1. A. The relative openness or closure of its institutional processes (that is, the formal and informal rules governing its internal organisation and access to its main decisional venues).

  2. B. The relative stability or instability of the elite alignments under-girding these institutional processes.

  3. C. The presence or absence of elite or ‘insider’ allies.

  4. D. Highly charged ‘symbolic’ events affording specific ‘windows of opportunity’, including notably the cycle of parliamentary elections and their outcomes.

A number of studies have documented how, in the period up to the early 1970s, the Labour Party’s organisational arrangements impacted on its women members and were linked in to a wider dynamic of gender relations in the party (McDonald 1977; Hills 1981; Graves 1994; Perrigo 1996, 118–9; Black and Brooke 1997, 430–3; Francis 2000, 195–9). Conceptualised here as ‘political opportunity structures’, what is most notable is the party organisation’s high degree of closure in respect of women (dimension A), largely because of the entrenched weight of the trade union movement in the party’s organisation and the broader party culture this had given rise to. As Perrigo emphasises, ‘male-domination was … embedded in Labour’s rule-bound, bureaucratic ways of working. Heavily influenced by trade unions, the rules fostered fraternal feelings and a system of shared meanings about what the party “stands for”, which tended to exclude women and make it difficult for them to participate on equal terms’ (1995, 408). However, Francis notes that (p.70) ‘sexual difference in the discourses (both hegemonic and subordinate) of the Labour Party was rarely disentangled from a larger matrix of identities, derived from religion, region, age, and (most critically) social class’ (2000, 199). From the 1970s the younger generation of women joining the party included large numbers of university-educated professional women and white-collar workers.

The result of this pattern of closure was that, until the mid-1970s, no woman had ever been elected to the trade union section of the party’s leading body, the NEC, and, although women constituted some 40% of the Labour Party’s individual membership, around 30% of its local general management committees and 11% of delegates to the Annual Conference, only two women had ever been elected to the NEC’s constituency section: Barbara Castle serving from 1951 to 75 and Joan Lestor from 1966 to 75 (Middleton 1977, 204–5; Hills 1981, 17–19, 23). There were of course five reserved seats for women on the NEC but since these were elected by the party Annual Conference their allocation was effectively subject to the trades union, whose block votes controlled over 90% of the votes at conference (Hills 1981, 19). Equally, trade union delegates dominated the ‘selectorates’ of constituency parties in most safe seats, controlling access to parliamentary nominations.4 Thus the October 1974 General Election saw just 18 women returned as Labour MPs, 5.6% of the PLP (Russell 2005, 110), even though Labour continued, as it had in the inter-war and post-war periods, to have a significantly better record in this respect than the Conservatives, and in this year almost 15% of its local councillors were women (Brooks et al 1990, 3).

Alongside the party’s mainstream organs, separate structures had existed for women party members since the amalgamation of the independent Women’s Labour League into the Labour Party in 1918 when the suffrage was first extended to some women in the UK. There were structures such as women’s sections at branch (ward) level; women’s councils at constituency or district level; conferences at the regional level, and at the national level the annual Women’s Conference; the (nominated) National Labour Women’s Advisory Committee and Chief Woman Officer, both reporting to the NEC and the latter also to the party agent; but none of these bodies enjoyed any formal powers within the party’s local and national policy processes (Francis 2000, 196). These separate structures had come under threat when the 1968 Committee of Enquiry into the Party Organisation advocated their abolition, but survived thanks to a spirited campaign of defence by the National Labour Women’s Advisory Committee, although the latter’s publication, Labour Women, ceased in 1971 (McDonald 1977, 152–3). (p.71) The Advisory Committee produced its own counter-report, Woman and the Labour Party, advocating the retention of separate structures and the NEC reserved seats until something like parity of presence between men and women had been achieved, recording that already by the early 1970s the number of women’s sections was expanding (Labour Women’s Advisory Committee, 1971). This was to continue through the seventies, thanks in part to the arrival in the party of a younger generation of women familiar with the practice of separate organisation within the broader second-wave feminist movement (Rowbotham et al 1979; Byrne 1996).

However, in the course of the following two decades the party’s political opportunity structures underwent a number of changes of critical importance for the argument developed here about the strategic framing of claims on behalf of women. We will focus here on four such changes. First, from the early 1970s what had been a relatively stable elite alignment (dimension B) between the moderate leaderships of the PLP and the trade union movement broke down, ushering in a protracted period of intense intra-party struggles with a successful alliance of the party’s Left drawn from the PLP, the unions and the constituency parties in the ascendancy in the NEC and annual conference by the mid-1970s, but bitterly at odds with the moderate majority in the PLP. This Left–Right polarisation in the party (with each of these wings in any case internally divided) was increasingly displaced by the rise to prominence of a new breed of party modernisers, who succeeded in constructing a coalition drawing from both wings of the party under the leaderships of Kinnock 1983–92, Smith 1992–94, and Blair from 1994 (Russell 2005, 10–33). Kinnock had been on the Left of the party prior to his election as leader, while Smith had been a leading figure in the moderate majority of the PLP. It is this context which provided institutional incentives for different groupings and networks of feminist activists to engage in a number of distinct episodes of strategic framing as they sought to use and gain access to the key decisional venues within the party by establishing a succession of differently configured elite alliances (dimension C). But from the late 1980s the formal arrangements of the party (dimension A) were increasingly supplemented by informally networked decisional venues through which the new modernising elite alignment consolidated its control over the party.

Second, for all that the intra-party struggles of this period centred at heart on conflicting visions of what the party should stand for and how these could be linked to building a winning electoral coalition, for each of the competing factions the key to success lay in securing, or resisting, (p.72) changes to the formal rules governing the party’s institutions and policy process (dimension A). It is this dominance of the debate over party rules that helps to explain why the energies of those who mobilised to pursue a feminist agenda within the party in the two decades up to 1997 were so largely directed to achieving an appropriate voice and presence for women within the party, rather than to further developing specific substantive policy issues. Prioritising party representational claims was, of course, logical, for without women achieving more effective representation, how could the party develop properly thought-through substantive policies for women? This chapter reflects this balance, dealing more fully with the strategic framing of representational claims in the next section and considering the strategic framing of substantive policy issues more briefly in the following section.

A third set of critical developments in this period concerns alterations in the availability of potential elite allies for feminist activists (dimension C) as a result of far-reaching changes underway in the trade union movement, changes which complicated the unions’ role as actors within the party in a period when the party’s modernisers were increasingly concerned to reduce the most publicly visible forms of their voting power within the party. In effect, the economic policies of the Thatcher governments combined with longer-term patterns of change within the UK labour market, and notably the rising participation rates of women in the active workforce, to alter the balance of power within the trade union movement in two important ways. First, power shifted from the predominantly male skilled and general workers unions to those based in varying categories of the white-collar public and private sector workforce. Second, leaders of these latter unions in particular, and also some general unions, faced new incentives to reposition themselves in relation to their current female membership and to potential women members by developing substantive policies for women and new representational procedures for them within their own decisional structures (Cockburn 1987, 6–14). The Trades Union Congress (TUC) had published its 10-point charter, Equality for Women Within Trade Unions in 1979 (Cockburn 1987, 12) and by the mid-1980s an EOC survey of the 11 largest unions showed that women made up 40% of their members, 16% of their executive bodies, 6% of their full-time officials and 20% of their delegates to TUC conferences (EOC 1985). These developments therefore transformed some leading trade unionists into potential allies for feminists, and facilitated alliance-building with them through the presence in the Labour Party of new networks of trade union women’s and equality officers and researchers pursuing their own trade unions’ gender agendas (Wainwright 1987, 185–8; (p.73) Short 1996, 18). However, in this same period other elements on the Right in the unions, who organised with their allies in the PLP in the ‘St Ermins Group’ to defeat the Left in the party, targeted the women’s sections seats in particular to build a moderate majority on the NEC (Hayter 2005, 117–23, 188, 193).

Finally, there are the ways in which electoral outcomes provide particular ‘windows of opportunity’ for strategic framing and alliance-building (dimension D). The four successive defeats of this period, which served to fuel competitive struggles over the party’s identity and organisation, certainly also provided opportunities for developing persuasive narratives linking representational as well as substantive policy claims on behalf of women to the party’s interest in offsetting its electoral ‘gender-gap’, as significantly fewer women than men from some key class and generational groups voted Labour (Norris 1993). While these cycles of electoral defeat have been employed as the organising framework for a number of analyses of gender representation within the Labour Party in this period (Perrigo 1995, 1996; Lovenduski 2005, 109–30), in the following two sections the analytic focus will, instead, be on successive cycles of strategic framing structured around, and stimulated by, shifting alliance-building opportunities within the party.

Strategic framing and representational claims for women

In examining representational claims, we can separate out four distinct episodes, in which claims concerning the representation of women were successively framed in terms of:

  • the collective empowerment of women within the party;

  • empowering executive representation through a Ministry for Women;

  • empowering individual women party members through gender quotas;

  • extending parliamentary representation through AWS.

As will be seen, each of these episodes centred on its own distinctive logic of strategic framing, with important differences in terms of: the mobilising structures involved, and which feminist activists they organised; the alliance-building and policy advocacy coalitions in which they engaged; and the decisional venues in the party they could mobilise in and to which they sought to gain access. For each case, it will be argued (p.74) here, the specific configurations of such factors are best understood as responses to key shifts over time in the party’s political opportunity structures discussed above.

The collective empowerment of women within the party

This first episode of strategic framing in the 1980s centres on the development of claims for women’s representation that fitted with the overall strategy of the party’s organised Left. It involves the only formally organised mobilising structure to emerge within the Labour Party specifically concerned with promoting women’s rights and gendered policies: the Women’s Action Committee (WAC), set up in 1980. WAC brought together primarily London-based activists influenced by second-wave feminism, but it was as much a product of the party’s Left–Right polarisation as of the wider feminist movement, initially being an off-shoot of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), formed in 1973 with Kinnock as one of its founding members. Although some WAC activists were closer to the ‘softer’ Left Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC) established in 1978 (Wainwright 1987, 181–3; Russell 2005, 97). From the outset, when its key demands were formulated, WAC was therefore firmly embedded in a wider policy advocacy coalition pursuing a strategy of party renewal and democratisation aimed at securing the accountability of the party’s parliamentary and extra-parliamentary leadership to its activist membership.5 For the CLPD this was to be achieved through the introduction of a wider electoral college to replace the PLP for election of the party leader; the mandatory re-selection of sitting MPs before each election; and by asserting the Right of the NEC – and not the Labour Cabinet (when the party was in government) or the Shadow Cabinet (when it was not) – to control the party’s election manifesto. In line with this, WAC’s founding platform focused primarily on representational concerns linking these into a broader Left-wing agenda: ‘To campaign for action, including positive discrimination, to ensure that women are fully represented at every level of party life, and thereby to strengthen the fight for a fundamental shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of women as well as working men’ (cited in Wainwright 1987, 181).

From the early 1980s, WAC pursued two main sets of demands (Russell 2005, 97–100). The first of these sought to empower the collective (and separate) representation of women in the party, by giving the Women’s Conference a formal role within the party’s decisional processes via two new rights: to put two resolutions onto the agenda (p.75) of the party’s Annual Conference; and to elect the five NEC places reserved for women. The second, taken up from 1982, sought to establish a minimum of one-woman-on-the-shortlist (OWOS) for every parliamentary selection. The first of these claims, to enhance the status of the Women’s Conference, was not new (Graves 1994, 110), but as formulated in the early 1980s it both took up the principles of difference and autonomous organisation from the second-wave feminist movement but also, quite crucially, fitted with the wider campaign of the CLPD and could be expected to increase the weight of the Left in shaping the agenda for the Annual Conference and, in particular more crucially, its weight within the party’s leading body by bringing a slate of Left-wing women onto the NEC in place of a slate backed by the (moderate) unions (Hayter 2005, 102, 117–23, 188; Russell 2005, 98–9). The second claim, which was quite new, both grew from, and helped to further legitimise, the CLPD’s wider case for mandatory reselection of all sitting MPs (Russell 2005, 99–100).

These two sets of representational claims were the subject of extensive, concerted campaigning, with circulated model resolutions taken in parallel by women’s sections for debate at the Women’s Conference and via adoption by sympathetic constituency parties to successive party Annual Conferences (Wainwright 1987, 181–3; Perrigo 1995, 412; Russell 2005, 98). WAC was thus very successful in initiating a wider debate within the party about strengthening women’s representation within the party. In the event, however, it had only partial success with the more limited of its demands, for OWOS. This was finally adopted at the 1988 Annual Conference, against the NEC’s opposition, with trade union backing. The fact that only three years earlier a similar WAC-initiated resolution on OWOS had secured NEC support but then been voted down by the unions’ block votes (Russell 2005, 100) is itself testimony to the emergence of new gender commitments in a number of major unions. But this pattern of developments also reflects the ambiguity of Kinnock’s position on these issues, given the tactical juggling he needed to engage in to construct a coalition around his party modernisation project in the aftermath of the Thatcher government’s crushing defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985; of his own excoriating attack on the Militant Tendency at the 1985 conference (Shaw 1996, 174–6); and given WAC’s growing identification with the party’s ‘harder Left’ in this period (Perrigo 1995, 412–13; Russell 2005, 95–7). In any case, the composite OWOS resolution as adopted with union support included a proviso (‘where a woman has been nominated’) which could potentially, and indeed did subsequently, (p.76) allow sitting MPs to be reselected via a shortlist of one candidate (Russell 2005, 101).6

The attempt to enhance the powers of the Women’s Conference, which both challenged and divided the trade union movement, proved altogether more problematic. WAC’s success in securing majority-support for its resolutions at the women’s conference in this period triggered a process of counter-framing in 1986 (Wainwright 1987, 183–7), in the form of a trade union-led reform strategy for the women’s conference and a GMB–APEX (Britain’s General Union and the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff) resolution to the party conference (Wainwright 1987, 183–7). This gave the Women’s Conference a new voting structure rather than new rights, with the leading share going to the trades union (50%), constituencies having 45% and other affiliates 5% (Russell 2005, 102), but in the longer term it involved re-articulating the constituent parts of the party to a new, elected NEC Women’s Committee, replacing the nominated National Labour Women’s Advisory Committee (see later). Accounts of how this reform strategy was put together point to the emergence of new informal sites of party policy-making – foreshadowing developments that we will return to with the third episode of strategic framing – with key actors from the party’s head office staff (including the party’s new general secretary, Larry Whitty, himself an ex-official of the then General and Municipal Workers’ Union, GMWU) networking together with trade union research and women’s officers and some members of the NEC and its Women’s (sub-) Committee (Wainwright 1987, 186; Russell 2005, 102).

Empowering executive representation: A Ministry for Women

If WAC’s campaign for rule changes met with very limited success during the 1980s, it did firmly log the issue of women’s representation within the party onto the party’s agenda. In response, a very different exercise in counter-framing got underway as early as 1983; following the disastrous election defeat of 1983 (when Labour’s share of the vote went down to its lowest level since 1918, with only 27.6% of the vote, and the loss of a crucial layer of its core support among trade unionists and skilled manual workers) and the election of Kinnock as party leader. This episode of strategic framing was undertaken by an altogether different kind of ‘mobilising structure’. Although the party’s archival record is not entirely clear on this, the key role here seems in effect to have been played by a solo feminist policy entrepreneur, Jo Richardson. A Left-winger and feminist active in the party from the (p.77) late 1940s, she was elected to Parliament after a long stint of service to the PLP Left as secretary to the Tribune Group of MPs (1948–78), and then successfully took forward as a private member’s bill the 1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act (Roth 1992, 1246–8).7 Elected to the Constituency Labour Party (CLP) section of the NEC from 1980, she would later be the first woman chair of the NEC (in 1989–1990).

Already in the party’s 1983 General Election manifesto – arising from the very full package of gendered policy commitments developed in Labour’s Programme, 1982 discussed in the following section – reference had been made to appointing a Cabinet Minister (of unspecified gender) to promote equality been the sexes (Labour Party 1983, 16). With the Left of the party still controlling the NEC, what Richardson now proposed was to address the issue of women’s representation within the party at the level of the party’s elected leadership, with the nomination by the NEC of one of its members to act as Women’s Rights Spokeswoman. The proposal was endorsed by the NEC, with Richardson duly appointed to the post in November 1983 (Roth 1992, 1247). At the same time, the NEC published a document, prepared by the National Labour Women’s Advisory Committee, a ‘Charter for Equality for Women in the Party’ recording the party’s rhetorical commitment to progress in women achieving positions of responsibility in, and on behalf of, the party but without specifying any new measures to achieve this (Perrigo 1996, 122; Lovenduski 2005, 112).

The wider electoral salience of the issue of women’s representation in the party was to be underlined in 1985 with the publication of a new analysis of Labour’s electoral defeats in 1979 and 1983 that identified a critical ‘gender gap’ in Labour’s voting support in key sections of the electorate (Radice 1985). Growing concern in the upper echelons of the party about attracting women voters combined with continuing impasse over the wider rule changes designed to secure women’s collective representation in the party, as advocated by WAC, set the context for Richardson to produce a more elaborate proposal in 1986, again using her base in the party’s key policy venue, the NEC. In this she was aided by the presence of a number of more or less sympathetic women who had achieved positions of prominence and responsibility in the upper echelons of the party’s formal organisation, including three other women NEC members drawn from different strands of the Left of the party – Audrey Wise, CLP section; and from 1985, Margaret Beckett and Joan Maynard, women’s section (Hayter 2005, 159–60) – and also of the party’s, re-titled, National Women’s Officer, Joyce Gould.

(p.78) The proposal that the NEC now adopted was for Labour to commit itself to the executive representation of women in the party with the appointment of a Shadow Minister for Women’s Rights and a party pledge to establish a Minister with Cabinet status when returned to government, in each case the appointee having a watching brief over, and coordination of, the party’s gendered policy commitments across the full range of policy sectors (Labour Party 1987a; Perrigo 1995, 413; Perrigo 1996, 124–5; Squires and Wickham-Jones 2002, 60). This had the effect of aligning the question of women’s representation in the party onto a quite different policy advocacy coalition, embracing the party leadership. Before being placed before the Annual Conference, the proposal was the subject of a broad, if in practice uneven, consultation exercise, with regional women’s councils and constituency parties being asked to discuss and offer responses on the proposal (Perrigo 1986, cited in Wainwright 1987, 180). But the initiative itself was developed very much ‘from above’ and seems to have been strongly influenced by the example of the Mitterrand presidency, the Left in France having finally been returned to government in 1981, against a wider European electoral trend to the Right, but with a prominent commitment to creating a Ministry for Women’s Rights of Cabinet status. This French experiment attracted widespread interest and commentary outside France in the early and mid-1980s, when Mme Yvette Roudy used her post at the national level to push forward a range of often controversial policies in France (Mazur 1995, 76–93), and at the European level to initiate a first round of meetings within the Council of Europe of national Ministers with responsibility for policies for women (Lovecy 2002, 277–8).

The strategic framing underlying this proposal was designed to ensure its congruence with the interests of the party leader, since the new Shadow Cabinet post would fall within the leader’s political patronage powers. Along with the prominence given to the party’s array of policies for women (discussed in the following section), this new post may have contributed to a sizeable swing to Labour among both younger women and among women manual workers at the 1987 General Election, a swing that only partially offset, however, its larger loss of male trade unionist and manual workers’ votes (Cockburn 1987, 1–4). But as had been the experience in other countries, creating such a ministry raised as many problems as it sought to solve, in terms of its standing in relation to policies falling within the remit of other ministries (Short 1996, 23). Richardson held the position until 1992 when it briefly passed to Mo Mowlam before John Smith chose to appoint to the post Clare Short, a well-known feminist who was not (unlike her (p.79) two predecessors) an elected member of the Shadow Cabinet, with a brief to review the party’s commitment to what was now referred to as a Minister for Women (Short 1996, 22–3). However, the document that was finally published in 1995, following wider consultations in the party and with its women’s organisations, Governing for Equality, while affirming a commitment to the appointment of a Minister for Women, did not commit the party to establishing a ministry for women but to ‘a women’s machinery with clear goals and access to information to be located in the Cabinet Office’ (Squires and Wickham-Jones 2002, 61). How these commitments to a WEU (in the Cabinet Office), an enhanced Women’s National Commission, ‘conducting an annual consultation on priorities for advancement to women’s equality’ (Short 1996, 23), and a Minister for Women of Cabinet rank fared subsequently after 1997 are examined in Chapter Five.

Empowering individual women party members: gender quotas

The outcome of these first two episodes of strategic framing of women’s representation in the party resulted in the creation of what was a new kind of ‘insider’ feminist mobilising structure within the party on this issue. The wider, informal policy network on women’s representation embracing a mix of trade union women’s/equality officers and Labour Party head office staff (Whitty and the party’s Women’s Officer: Vicky Phillips, until 1988 and then Deborah Lincoln, along with Joyce Gould, promoted to Director of Organisation) that had been at the core of the reform strategy developed for the Women’s Conference in 1986/87 was now integrated into the new NEC’s Women’s Committee, and the newly created Shadow Minister for Women’s Rights (Short 1996, 19; Russell 2005, 105). The latter comprised all the women members of the NEC, plus six elected women trade unionists, and 11 representatives elected by the party’s regional organisations (Labour Party 1993, 12). Russell notes that six of the women trade union officers, drawn from: the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), Confederation of Health Service Employees (COHSE), Manufacturing, Science, Finance (MSF), National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) and Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) – who had ‘started to meet regularly behind the scenes with the party’s women’s officer … to build support in the unions for change’ subsequently gained seats on the NEC’s women’s committee in 1989, elected by the trade union section of the Women’s Conference (Russell 2005, 104, 127).

A third episode of strategic framing thus got underway, as participants (p.80) of this ‘insider’ mobilising structure sought to fit the issue of women’s representation within the framework of the broad, modernising strategy that Kinnock and his closest supporters were developing for the party. This they did by learning from the experience of other sister-parties of the Socialist International (Short 1996, 18; Russell 2005, 104), as noted in the introduction to this chapter, taking up the idea of internal party gender quotas. It was the 1989 Women’s Conference that first adopted a resolution on a 40% internal quota in the party. This was then taken forward by six resolutions submitted to the 1989 party conference, resulting in the adoption, on a show of hands, of Composite 54 moved by a CLP and seconded by the GMB (Russell 2005, 105, 107), committing the party to introducing internal party quotas for the constituency and trade union sections of the NEC, for a minimum of 40% of women on all party committees and local party delegations (for example, to party conference) and a minimum quota for the Shadow Cabinet (Labour Party 1990, 2). This new policy after it had been adopted was, like Richardson’s previous NEC proposal for a Ministry for Women, the subject of a wide consultation exercise in the party, organised by the new NEC Women’s Committee (Labour Party 1990, 1), and more detailed proposals were tested at the 1990 Women’s Conference, where the unions voted in support (Russell 2005, 106). Three members of the reformed NEC Women’s Committee, two trade union officers, Rachel Brooks of GMB (but who sat on the Women’s Committee as a London party representative) and Angela Eagle of COHSE (a trade union section representative) and Clare Short, by then the Committee’s chair, co-authored Quotas Now: Women in the Labour Party (1990), which set out the case for fully implementing the 1989 conference decision across the whole party. After 17 further resolutions were submitted to the 1990 annual conference, a more detailed composite was successfully moved by the GMB and the NEC finally in 1991, which recommended to party conference a rolling programme of quotas at all levels of the party to be implemented over several years, winning 98% support on a card vote. The NEC proposals left the contentious issue of parliamentary representation to one side in the run-up to the 1992 General Election, but included the requirement that trade union delegations to the party Annual Conference include women pro rata to their representation in each union’s membership (Russell 2005, 107–8).

Undoubtedly, the case for some clear movement on the issue of women’s representation within the party was aided by the persuasive analysis that could be developed for the party leadership around the decisive importance of winning women voters to Labour, after Labour’s (p.81) third successive General Election defeat. The election focus group research undertaken by the party’s Shadow Communications Agency in late 1988 clearly demonstrated the popularity of Labour’s policies and core values with women voters, but that such support was not being translated into votes because of the party’s unattractively ‘male’ public identity among different social class and age groups of women (Hewitt and Mattinson 1989; Labour Party 1990, 1; Short 1996, 17–18). Reframing the issue of women’s representation in the party in terms not of their collective representation, but of an enhanced presence of women as individuals in positions of responsibility at all levels that could be secured by internal party quotas offered, for the leadership, the advantage of making the party more ‘electable’ by being more women-friendly in its public image, not least at the party’s conference.

If the internal quotas proposals were thus strategically framed to appeal to the party leadership, and the case for them often presented as part of an electoral-driven strategy, it is nevertheless true that the issue was not developed nor initially taken forward by Kinnock or the NEC, but rather, as Russell argues, the NEC, trade union leaders and Kinnock were effectively left in a reactive role, ‘bounced’ into supporting change by an active, feminist network in the unions supported by key party head-office staff (Russell 2005, 106–7). The longer-term outcome would be a radically changed gender composition for local executive bodies, for the Annual Conference and for the NEC where the number of women expanded from five out of 29 in 1991 to 18 out of 32 in 1998 (once the reserve section had been abolished in 1997, replaced by an increased quota in all other sections). This resulted in Clare Short’s assessment, in ‘an important and unremarked change in the ethos and balance of power of the party’ (Short 1996, 19). In the longer term, enhancing the individual representation of women through internal party quotas (Perrigo 1999, 175), however, served to undermine the rationale of the separate women’s sections and conference that had lain at the heart of WAC’s strategy for the collective representation of women: within four years from 1994 the number of women’s sections had fallen from 550 to 200 (most having less than 10 active members), and an NEC consultation exercise in 1998 recommended that the national Women’s Conference should be redesigned as a training event for women members, while the new Policy Forums around which the party’s policy process was now being re-built (Labour Party 1997a) should have equal numbers of men and women members attending (Labour Party 1998, 6–12; Perrigo 1999, 171–2).

(p.82) Extending parliamentary representation: all women shortlists

With this final episode of strategic framing, we move on to a case of renewed activist mobilisation (of the kind that was central to our first episode) now centred on winning increased parliamentary representation but linked into the insider feminist network (that had been critical to the third episode) organised around the Women’s Committee. The latter, following John Smith’s election as party leader in 1992, was now integrated into the revamped party modernisation coalition which he, coming from the ‘moderate’ wing of the party, sought to build with a crucial emphasis on parliamentary selection rule changes that would remove the trades union local ‘block vote’. The strategic framing of women’s representation thus gravitated upwards, beyond the Women’s Committee and the NEC, to which it reported, to the office of party leader. Having committed himself in his acceptance speech as leader of the party in July 1992 to introducing a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) system for parliamentary candidate selection (Hayter 2005, 41), Smith’s decision to himself attend the key meeting of the Women’s Committee that debated the options (Short 1996, 20–1) testified to his understanding of the strategic importance of tying in the development of a mechanism to implement the party’s targets for women in its parliamentary party to the achievement of OMOV.

Any incoming leader in this period would have prioritised making the party’s public image more women-friendly, in view of the focus-group research noted above and the gender gap that reopened in the 1992 General Election, the party’s fourth successive General Election defeat. At these elections Labour had made only quite limited progress towards its PLP target of 50% women by 2000, with 37 incoming women MPs (13.7% of the PLP), in place of 21 (9.2%) elected in 1987 and just 10 women MPs (4.8%) in 1983 (Russell 2005, 110). From 1988, a number of prominent women had run Labour Women’s Network to provide training for aspirant parliamentary candidates. But in the runup to 1992 with 20 incumbent MPs retiring, only two were replaced by women candidates; the increased number of Labour women MPs therefore owed their success to the party’s rising support in a range of more marginal constituencies (Short 1996, 20). For Smith, however, finding a viable mechanism for securing women candidates in safe and target seats and linking this to OMOV was of strategic importance to winning the wider battle over the latter.

It is in this context that AWS came to the fore. The Women’s Committee could not draw on other countries’ experiences, since most (p.83) operated with list systems of proportional representation. AWS had been discussed within WAC in the mid-1980s (Russell 2005: 109–10), but WAC had not pursued it in a focused way, preferring OWOS as a broad policy feeding into the Left’s wider campaign for subjecting incumbent MPs to regular reselection. LCC, however, had taken it up in its commission on party democracy in 1989 and in that year the party’s General Secretary wrote to all CLPs encouraging them to use AWS (Russell 2005, 110–11). In 1990, the Fabian pamphlet, Quotas Now, argued for AWS to be adopted through a system of variable quotas for safe, marginal and no-hope seats organised within a regional framework (Brooks et al 1990, 20–2). From 1990, WAC and CLPD backed model resolutions on AWS for all seats with a retiring MP and all by-elections, but a composite resolution along these lines was heavily defeated at the 1992 party conference (Russell, 2005, 111). What was now proposed in the Women’s Committee, with the support of the chair of the party’s Organisation Committee, Gordon Colling, was a compromise: a commitment to AWS in half the safe seats with retiring MPs and half the party’s target seats (Short 1996, 20), and a new regional framework to achieve consensus on which constituencies would operate with AWS (Eagle and Lovenduski 1998, 4–5; Russell 2005, 113).

Once adopted by the Women’s Committee, these proposals were endorsed by the NEC in June 1993. The decision to link AWS to OMOV as a single parliamentary selection rule-change proved critical. OMOV itself was opposed by many trade unions attached to retaining their block votes in local parliamentary electoral colleges, while Smith as leader argued that ending the block vote was vital to the party’s credibility as a party of government. It was only because the USDAW union broke its members’ conference mandate on OMOV in order to support AWS, while MSF abstained on this key vote (because its members’ votes had formally committed it to support AWS and to oppose OMOV) that the rule change was passed (Short 1996, 21; Russell 2005, 49–56, 113).

The outcome in terms of the numbers of Labour women MPs elected in 1997 was examined at the beginning of this chapter. As noted there, AWS was, however, challenged as a breach of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act in an industrial employment tribunal case in Leeds, Jepson and Dyas-Elliot v. Labour Party 1996.8 Two Labour Party male members successfully argued that section 13 of the Act covered parties’ selection processes because these governed access to gainful employment. The Labour Party decided not to appeal and subsequently it became clear that, as party leader and then Prime Minister, Tony Blair regarded AWS in 1997 as a one-off boost to women’s representation (p.84) rather than providing a continuing framework of positive discrimination (Eagle and Lovenduski 1998, 12–13; Lovecy 2002, 282–3; Russell 2005, 114–15). In the absence of new legislation permitting AWS, for the 2001 elections the NEC successfully proposed that all shortlists should be gender balanced (with 50% men and 50% women), but the numbers of women elected fell from 101 to 95. After the elections an amendment tabled at a National Policy Forum was accepted by the government and, once new amending legislation had been put onto the statute book with the 2002 Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act, the NEC and Annual Conference in 2002 adopted a new system that would applying AWS to a percentage of all seats with incumbent MPs retiring at the next General Election (Childs 2003; Russell 2005, 120–1). This left gender-balanced selection processes in place for all other seats, and left full discretion to the NEC to designate the vacant safe seats where AWS would apply, in order to achieve the overall percentage of women candidates required in this category.

Strategic framing and substantive policy claims for women

In terms of substantive policies, we find a considerably greater degree of continuity in the patterns of framing policies for women that developed over the two decades to 1997. This continuity is to be explained in part because the new generations of women coming into the party with the distinctive values of second-wave feminism were able to build on a number of policies already underway or in place. More especially, as noted in the previous section, they succeeded in winning a framing of women’s equal rights requiring positive discrimination during the Left’s ascendancy, in the party programme adopted at the 1982 Annual Conference on which the 1983 manifesto was then based (Labour Party 1982), and they did so in terms that were fairly congruent with the Left’s wider vision for the party. Once this had been achieved successive party leaders, concerned with extending Labour’s support among different categories of women voters, as previously argued, accepted they should afford some prominence to policies, which opinion polling and focus group research showed to be attractive to many women voters. As a result, while there certainly was a Left–Right polarisation in the party over policies for women, and the way some of these were taken up and implemented by local Labour-run councils was targeted in key parts of the media as exemplifying ‘the loony Left’, it was not until the mid-1990s that a significant element of re-framing got underway under Blair’s leadership. In any case, in the 1980s a key policy like abortion (p.85) law, with attempted reforms to restrict its provision, proved divisive on both wings of the party.

In terms of gendered policies, Labour governments had been responsible for important legislation that responded to the concerns of feminists who joined the party from the 1970s on (even if such legislation was usually felt to ‘not go far enough’). This included Barbara Castle’s 1970 Equal Pay Act, enacted in response to the Dagenham women Ford workers’ strike; the 1974 State-Earnings Related Pension scheme, whose biggest winners were women; the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and Wilson’s creation in 1975 of the National Women’s Commission as a consultative body within the governmental policy process (Perkins 2003, 328–33, 378–9). The Labour government had also enabled a series of key private members’ bills to come onto the statute book through free votes in the 1960s, legalising abortion, facilitating divorce for women and decriminalising male homosexuality in the 1960s (Francis 2000, 211). A decade later Richardson, working closely with the National Council of Civil Liberties, succeeded in winning new statutory protections for women subject to domestic violence, with the support of the Lord Chancellor’s Office (Coote and Gill 1977). From the late 1960s the National Labour Women’s Advisory Committee had identified discrimination against women operating in a broad range of policy areas, starting with its 1969 Towards Equality report on social security, and this work led to a formal party commitment in 1974 to end all forms of discrimination against women, set out in the manifesto’s Charter for Women, and to the Committee’s report, calling for gender balance in all nominated public bodies, Obstacles to Women in Public Life, that would be published by the party in 1974 (McDonald 1977, 149–51, 159).

Perrigo argues that the ascendancy of the Left in the NEC by the late 1970s then enabled feminists to win a fuller analysis of the problems facing women in contemporary Britain in Labour’s Programme 1982 (1996, 121–2). As a result, commitments to positive action policies – to remove discriminatory practices in the workplace, expand training opportunities for women, extend the 1970 Equal Pay Act and extend employment rights to part-time and home-workers, provide a major expansion of childcare and strengthen the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act – were taken forward; along with further improvements in maternity rights and grants, the ending of VAT on sanitary protection, improved support for carers and for victims of rape and domestic violence, and the expansion of NHS provision for family planning and abortion in the 1983 manifesto, The New Hope for Britain (Labour Party 1983, 14, 16–7), where they sat alongside the party’s ambitious economic programme (p.86) of public sector-led reflation, re-nationalisations and import controls to create full employment (Shaw 1996, 166–8).

Whereas economic policy, defence commitments and the party’s stance on Europe were all to undergo a sea-change in the following period, for the most part these policy commitments for women were retained in the party’s subsequent election manifestoes through to 1997 (Labour Party 1987b, 1992, 1997), or in some cases spelt out further so that, for example, Labour’s Charter for Women’s Health, referred to in the 1987 manifesto, included commitments to a full network of Well Women’s Clinics, to better breast cancer screening and to the Right for women to choose to see a woman doctor (Labour Party 1987b, 8). The 1987 manifesto also set out the case for a Ministry for Women’s Rights headed by a Cabinet Minister in terms of the need to tackle the many essential rights that women in Britain were still denied (Labour Party 1987b, 14–5, 39–43) and Jo Richardson was able to develop her own role, as a Shadow Minister, in this campaign, drawing on the ‘insider’ network of feminists that we saw developing with the framing of gender quotas. Cockburn records that ‘the Labour Party for the first time had an all-woman team of organisers working more or less autonomously to put across a women’s policy programme to the electorate’ (Cockburn 1987, 23). In the Policy Review established following that electoral defeat, other women’s organisations within the party were not formally represented but its report sustained the party’s main range of policy commitments for women and Perrigo notes that ‘criticism that women had not been formally involved led to a women’s monitoring committee being set up, chaired by Jo Richardson’ (1996, 125), while the party’s subsequent publication on the ministry spelt out the party’s policy commitments under a wider set of issue areas – women at work; safety and women; women as consumers; women and public life; and so on (Labour Party 1991).

Nevertheless, by the early 1990s the party’s overarching policy frame was shifting from the 1983 objective of creating ‘a fairer Britain’ to what became ‘Building a strong economy’ in 1992 (Labour Party 1992, 11–14). In the process, some of the party’s gendered policies began to be re-articulated to what would become a much clearer ‘welfare-to-work’ framework in the 1997 manifesto, New Labour Because Britain Deserves Better (Labour Party 1997b). Already by 1992 there was beginning to be a clearer focus on the family rather than more specifically on women, with policies set out in terms not just of achieving new rights for women but rather of creating a new framework for more prosperous and successful families and for achieving ‘work–life balance’ for both men and women (Labour Party 1992, 13–15). This latter was a (p.87) perspective that Patricia Hewitt, who was by this time working in the party leader’s personal office, was to develop further (Hewitt 1993). And this shift was to be taken considerably further in the 1997 manifesto, where there would be no sub-section on women and their rights as such. Instead, policy commitments relating to women were ‘mainstreamed’ and integrated under Blair’s 10 key pledges (‘mainstreaming’ in terms of policy process is discussed further in Chapter Five), especially those on education, personal prosperity and ‘build[ing] strong families and communities’ (Labour Party 1997, 6–31).


This chapter has identified and charted the evolution of two very different trajectories of strategic framing in the cases of representational and substantive policies for women in the Labour Party in the two decades to 1997.

In the case of representational policies, differently constituted groups of feminist activists have been shown organising themselves over time in different kinds of mobilising structures, each linked to what were quite different wider policy advocacy coalitions and giving them access to differing decisional venues within the party. Changing opportunity structures in the Labour Party in the course of this period were shaped by changing elite alignments in the party’s NEC and PLP and in the relations of these bodies to the trade union movement. Led, under successive party leaders, to the framing of representational issues, as we have seen, around four successive demands: for the collective empowerment of women in the party: for empowering their executive representation; for empowering individual women through gender quotas; and for expanding women’s presence within the PLP.

In contrast, in the case of substantive policies, this chapter has shown that changes in the party’s evolving opportunity structures had less of a direct impact on how feminist activists sought to extend the party’s policy commitments to women from the late 1970s through until the early 1990s, indeed until as late as July 1994 when Clare Short, as Shadow Minister of Women, published Labour’s Strategy for Women – A Summary (Labour Party 1994). Here processes of strategic framing by feminists were more clearly underpinned by the demonstrable electoral interests of the party and as a result there was a greater degree of continuity in how substantive policies were framed. However, Blair’s leadership from 1994 and the development of Gordon Brown’s economic strategy for the party brought with them a significant change in the political opportunity structures for the strategic framing of (p.88) substantive policies for women as these were ‘mainstreamed’ into the party’s main sectoral policies. At the same time, the advent of gender quotas ‘mainstreamed’ women into the party’s organisations and decisional venues at all levels and by the time Labour won the 1997 General Election, this had led to the demise of the annual Women’s Conference. This meant that in the elaboration and implementation of the policies that are the subject of the chapters that follow, there no longer was a distinctive arena in the party for its women members to publicly debate the relationship of the Labour Party, as a party of government, to the politics of gender.


(1) In addition, a full decade earlier than the DNA, the new French Socialist Party incorporated into its party statutes an initially modest gender quota of 10% (increased to 20% in 1979 and 30% in 1991) that was to apply both to the party’s internal structures and also to candidacy selection for elections using proportional representation (Allwood and Wadia 2000, 59), thus excluding the party’s parliamentary representation, where a variant on the UK’s FPTP system (with two ballots) is employed. More recently, the Socialist Party in government has led the way in Europe by introducing statutory gender quotas for candidate selection in all elections (Lovecy 2000).

(2) For example, the breakaway Social Democrat Party in 1981 devised a shortlisting quota system (Perrigo 1996: 123).

(3) For single country studies see, notably, the set of country studies covering Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the US as well as Britain brought together in Lovenduski and Norris 1993.

(4) Barbara Castle’s selection in Blackburn in 1944 provides an interesting exception to this general rule, with the local agent mobilising local members to outflank the ‘group of trade unionists who would prefer a trade union activist to a London-based journalist’ (Perkins 2003, 77).

(5) Russell notes that from 1983 WAC constituted itself as a formally independent body but remained affiliated to the CLPD before ‘becoming associated with the “hard” Left in the later 1980s’ (Russell 2005, 97–8).

(6) Its effect was thus limited, as the Left’s earlier 1979 mandatory selection victory had been (resulting in only eight de-selections by 1983, with only one woman, Clare Short, selected as a replacement) (Perrigo 1995, 410).

(7) (p.89) Her feminist convictions were equally clear from the foreword she wrote the National Organisation of Labour Students’ 1977 publication, Women, Sexism and Socialism.

(8) Jepson and Dyas-Elliot v. Labour Party [1996] IRLR 116.


Bibliography references:

Allwood, G. and Wadia, K. (2000) Women and Politics in France, London: Routledge.

Black, A. and Brooke, S. (1997) ‘The Labour Party, women, and the problem of gender, 1951-1966’, Journal of British Studies 36(4), 419-452.

Brooks, R., Eagle, A. and Short, C. (1990) Quotas Now: Women and the Labour Party, London: The Fabian Society.

Byrne, P. (1996) ‘The politics of the Women’s Movement’, Parliamentary Affairs 49(1), 55-70.

Caul, M. (1999) ‘Women’s representation in Parliament – the role of political parties’, Political Parties 5(1), 79-98.

Caul, M. (2001) ‘Political parties and the adoption of candidate gender quotas’, Journal of Politics 63(4) 1214-29.

Childs, S. (2003) ‘The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act’, Representation 39(2), 83-92.

Cockburn, C. (1987) Women, Trade Unions and Political Parties, London: The Fabian Society.

Coote, A. and Gill, T. (1977) Battered Women and the New Law, London: National Council for Civil Liberties.

Eagle, M. and Lovenduski, J. (1998) High Time or High Tide for Labour Women, London: The Fabian Society.

Equal Opportunities Commission (1985) Women and Trade Unions: A Survey, Manchester: Equal Opportunities Commission.

Francis, M. (2000) ‘Labour and gender’, in D.Tanner, P. Thane and N. Tiratsoo (eds) Labour’s First Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 191-220.

Graves, P.M. (1994) Labour Women: Women in Working Class Politics 1918-1939, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hayter, D. (2005) Fightback! Labour’s traditional right in the 1970s and 1980s, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hewitt, P. (1993) About Time: The Revolution in Work and Family Life, London: IPPR/Rivers Oram Press.

Hewitt, P. and Mattinson, D. (1987) Women’s Votes: The Key to Winning, London: The Fabian Society

(p.90) Hills, J. (1981) ‘Britain’, in Lovenduski, J. and Hills, J. (eds) The Politics of the Second Electorate, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp 8-32.

IPU (Inter-Parliamentary Union) (1994) Plan of Action to Correct Present Imbalances in the Participation of Men and Women in Political Life, Geneva: IPU.

IPU (1997) Men and Women in Politics: Democracy in the Making, Geneva: IPU.

Labour Party (1982) Labour’s Programme, London: Labour Party.

Labour Party (1983) The New Hope for Britain: Labour’s Manifesto 1983. Think Positive Think Labour, London: Labour Party.

Labour Party (1987a) Labour’s Ministry for Women, London: Labour Party.

Labour Party (1987b) Britain Will Win With Labour, London: Labour Party.

Labour Party (1990) Representation of Women in the Labour Party: Statement by the NEC, Annual Conference 1990, London: Labour Party.

Labour Party (1991) A New Ministry for Women, London: Labour Party.

Labour Party (1992) It’s Time to Get Britain Working Again: Labour’s Election Manifesto, London: Labour Party.

Labour Party (1993) Women in the Labour Party, London: Labour Party

Labour Party (1994) Labour’s Strategy for Women – A Summary, London: Labour Party.

Labour Party (1997a) Partnership in Power, NEC Consultation Document, January, London: Labour Party.

Labour Party (1997b) New Labour Because Britain Deserves Better, London: Labour Party.

Labour Party (1998) Building a Healthy Women’s Organisation, NEC paper to Annual Conference, London: Labour Party.

Labour Women’s Advisory Committee (1971) Women and the Labour Party, Report submitted to the December National Executive Committee, London: Labour Party.

Lovecy, J. (2000) ‘Citoyennes à part entière? Gendered citizenship in France’, Government and Opposition, 35(4), 439-62.

Lovecy, J. (2002) ‘Gender mainstreaming and the framing of women’s rights in Europe: the contribution of the Council of Europe’, Feminist Legal Studies, 10(3), 271-83.

Lovenduski, J. (1993) ‘Introduction: the dynamics of gender and party’, in J. Lovenduski and P. Norris (eds), Gender and Party Politics, London: Sage, pp 1-15.

(p.91) Lovenduski, J. (2005) Feminizing Politics, Cambridge: Polity.

Lovenduski, J. and Norris, P. (eds) (1993) Gender and Party Politics, London: Sage.

Matland, R.E. and D.T. Studlar (1996) ‘The contagion of women candidates in single-member district and proportional representation electoral systems: Canada and Norway’, Journal of Politics 58(3), 707-34.

Mazur, A.G. (1995) ‘Strong state and symbolic reform: the Ministère des Droits de la Femme in France’, in D.M. Stetson and A.G. Mazur (eds), Comparative State Feminism, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp 76-94.

McAdam, D., McCarthy, J.D. and Zald, M.N. (1996) ‘Introduction: opportunities, mobilising structures and framing processes – towards a synthetic, comparative perspective on social movements’, in D. McAdam, J.D. McCarthy and M.N. Zald (eds) Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilising Structures and Cultural Framing, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, pp 1-22.

McDonald, O. (1977) ‘Women in the Labour Party’, in L. Middleton (ed) Women in the Labour Movement: The British Experience, London: Croom Helm, pp 144-60.

Middleton, L. (ed) (1977) Women in the Labour Movement: The British Experience, London: Croom Helm.

National Organisation of Labour Students (1977) Women, Sexism and Socialism, London (Transport House): National Organisation of Labour Students.

Norris, P. (1993) ‘The gender-generation gap in British elections’, in D. Denver et al (eds) British Elections and Parties Handbook, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, pp 129-42.

Perkins, A. (2003) Red Queen: The Authorized Biography of Barbara Castle, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Perrigo, S. (1986) ‘Socialism, feminism and the Labour Party: some experiences in Leeds’, Feminist Review, no 23, 101-8.

Perrigo, S. (1995) ‘Gender struggles in the British Labour Party from 1979 to 1995’, Party Politics 1(3), 407-37.

Perrigo, S. (1996) ‘Women and change in the Labour Party’, Parliamentary Affairs 49(1), 17-25.

Perrigo, S. (1999) ‘Women, gender and New Labour’, in G.Taylor (ed) The Impact of New Labour, Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp 162-76.

Phillips, A. (1995) The Politics of Presence, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pollack, M and Hafner-Burton, E. (2000) ‘Mainstreaming gender in the European Union’, Journal of Public Policy 7(3), 432-56.

(p.92) Radice, L. (ed) (1985) Winning Women’s Votes, London: The Fabian Society.

Roth, A. (1998) Parliamentary Profiles, London: Parliamentary Profiles.

Rowbotham, S., Segal, L. and Wainwright, H. (1979), Beyond the Fragments: Feminism in the Making of Socialism, London: Islington Community Press.

Russell, M. (2005) Building New Labour: The Politics of Party Organisation, Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Sainsbury, D. (1993) ‘The politics of increased women’s representation: the Swedish Case’, in J. Lovenduski, and P. Norris (eds), Gender and Party Politics, London: Sage, pp 263-90.

Shaw E. (1996) The Labour Party since 1945, Oxford: Blackwell.

Short, C. (1996) ‘Women and the Labour Party’, Parliamentary Affairs 49(1), 17-26.

Smith, J., Chatfield, C. and Pugnucco, R. (1997) ‘Social movements and World politics: a theoretical framework’ in J.Smith, C.Chatfield and R. Pugnucco (eds) Transnational Social Movements and Global Politics, New York, NY: Syracuse University Press, pp 59-77.

Squires, J. and Wickham-Jones, M. (2002) ‘Mainstreaming in Westminster and Whitehall’, Parliamentary Affairs 55(1), 57-70.

Wainwright, H. (1987) Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, London: Hogarth Press.