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IN 1979 gender could hardly be said to be an issue in the British Labour Party. Yet by 1995 the party had a Shadow Minister for Women, a detailed strategy for developing and implementing policy aimed specifically at women, and most controversially had approved and begun to implement a quota system for the selection of parliamentary candidates. in order to understand this change we need to analyse the dynamic that developed as women's mobilisation in the party interacted with the alternative strategies that Labour adopted to revive public support in the face of successive election defeats. The initial impetus for change came from women party members. As Joni Lovenduski has noted, parties do not move on gender Issues until they are pressed.(1) Until the late 1970s there was neither significant pressure nor any real incentive for the Labour Party to take gender issues seriously. There was no competition from other political parties on women's Issues. Further, despite the widespread mobilisation of women in the feminist movement, there was little attempt by women influenced by feminism to exert pressure directly on the political system.(2) In fact, the British women's movement was extremely sceptical of working though political parties, which were viewed as bureaucratic and incapable of responding to their needs. By the late 1970s this attitude began to change. The women's movement was fragmenting and losing direction. The election of a Conservative government and a deepening economic crisis also highlighted the weakness of a strategy of working outside the political system. A number of women Influenced by feminism joined the Labour Party and began to work with sympathetic party members to feminise it.
From 1979 women have mobilised to demand a voice in decision-making and changes in the political agenda. They have sought Increasing representation, shifts in the party programme and changes in its structures and organisation. They have proved to be highly skilled organisers. They have mobilised resources, they constructed allies in and outside the party, and have proved adroit at adapting their strategies to the Imperatives of intraparty politics. However, whilst a necessary condition, the mobilisation of women is not sufficient to explain the changes that have taken place. The strategies that women have adopted, and the nature and timing of the party's response, have to be understood in the wider context of the crisis of the Labour Party. Since 1979 the Labour Party has been under enormous pressure to modernise in order to counter successive electoral defeats, increasing party competition and a declining membership. On the one hand, this situation has been advantageous for women. They have been able to use the modernisation process, and the impetus it has generated for internal party change, to press their own agenda. On the other hand, those forcing the pace of party change have had very different agendas. Women have been both constrained by and forced to adapt their own strategies In order to influence those other agendas.
Most theories of party change assume that parties are instrumentally rational and will change and adapt to changes in their environment in order to maximise votes.(3) However, the political significance of environmental changes are far from self-evident; particular responses are always contested.(4) Further, as the `new institutionalists' have pointed out, parties are not just electoral machines; they are specific institutions with their own histories, ideologies, cultures, factions and coalitions. The ways In which parties respond to changes in their environment and the pace and direction of the change is always partly constrained by their Internal organisational characteristics.(5)
The dynamics of change in the Labour Party since 1979 clearly Illustrate the complex relationship between changes In Its external environment and its response. Change in policy and Internal organisation has not been smooth or linear. At all stages, change has been contested as it has threatened vested interests, traditional alliances or ideological positions. This is evident both in terms of the party's response to crisis since 1979 and in its response to women's demands. The different ways in which the party has responded to the crisis have provided different structures of possibilities for women to press their claims.
We can identify three distinct periods, each of which has provided a specific set of opportunities and constraints for women activists.
Between 1979 and 1983, the party moved to the left. This provided the initial context for women's mobilisation. The period provided important new opportunities for women to articulate their demands. The second period, between 1983 and 1987, provided a very different environment where the political priorities of the leadership and that of women appeared to be distinct or even incompatible. In this period the party leadership response could be described as one of containment. The third period, since 1987, has provided the most favourable context for women as the party strategy of modernisation and the demands of women have become increasingly congruent. Before exploring the strategies women adopted in each of these periods, the party's response and the distinctive gender party dynamic that developed as a consequence, it is necessary to describe the nature of the Labour Party in 1979. In particular, it is necessary to identify those characteristics which have historically made it difficult for women to establish gender as a salient political issue.
The Labour Party in 1979
Before 1979, the Labour Party was not a favourable site for gender struggles. It was an extremely male dominated party. Though women constituted around 40% of the membership they were grossly underrepresented in the Parliamentary Labour Party, as local councillors and as party officers.(6) In 1979 only 3% of Labour MPs and 11% of conference delegates were women. They occupied a mere seven of the 29 seats on the National Executive Committee, five of which were actually reserved for women.(7) The party's organisation, traditional alliances and culture all played a part in perpetuating this male domination.
Though ostensibly open to men and …