Terry Conway from Islington North Labour Party and Labour Women Leading looks back on what the conference and the Labour Women’s organisation more generally used to be like – and how the left as a whole needs to fight to return a democratic women’s voice as a central part of Corbyn’s Labour Party.
When I first joined the Labour Party in the early 1980’s, I quickly became heavily involved in the Labour women’s organisation.
That organisation used to be a central part of Labour’s structure. Women’s sections and women’s councils in localities sent delegates to General Committees. We supported women to get involved in the broader party and the Labour movement as a whole. National Labour Women’s conference was a democratic forum in which women across Britain had the opportunity to come together and share experiences and make decisions about campaigning priorities.
Effective and outward looking
The Labour women’s structures were one of the most effective and outward looking parts of the Labour Party. Looking back, most of the women I remember who were active at that time defined ourselves as feminists and fought for the principals of the Women’s Liberation movement within the Labour Party.
Labour women were a vital part of opposing attempts to restrict women’s abortion rights which came through a series of private members bills after the passage of the seminal 1967 Abortion Act – and key to setting up the National Abortion Campaign (which later became Abortion Rights which effectively defended those rights over the decades through campaigning on the streets as well as through political actions.
Labour women supported women taking industrial action – for example women at Grunwick’s and were active during the Miners’ strike – making particularly strong links with Women against Pit Closures
The Labour Women’s organisation including National Women’s conference had a history of taking up more general political issues championed by the left as well. Solidarity with the Irish struggle and particularly with the fight of Black Sections to get black self-organisation supported by the Labour Party as a whole and as an official part of the structures were causes I particularly remember us championing.
Gutted and atrophied
It is no surprise then that Labour Women’s conference was gutted and deprived of its democratic role by the Blairites as part of the same process that saw the undermining of the sovereignty of annual conference. Local women’s organisations did continue on paper – under the new name of Women’s forums – but atrophied in many areas
But while restoring the role of annual conference has rightly been at the centre of the left’s preoccupations, the women’s structures – and support for self organisation more generally have been given rather less priority.
It’s true that last year’s annual conference passed a rule change that should have started to rectify things – saying that the NEC should issue procedures for a National Women’s Conference that “will have a formal role in the policy making process.” It’s also true that the unions, through TULO tried to exert pressure for an effective conference, but unfortunately they weren’t heeded – and there has been too little noise made about that failure to carry through last year’s decisions.
This year’s Labour Women’s conference will be a shadow of its former self. What used to be a weekend conference in the spring is again squeezed into less than a day.
Women have been at the sharp end of the attacks carried through by the coalition and then Tory governments under the rubric of austerity. We have suffered as workers and users of public services which have suffered brutal cuts and seen services specifically dedicated to women often being the first to go.
Women have been fighting back too – in the junior doctor’s strike, as McDonalds and Cineworld strikers, as workers fighting the public sector pay cap, as campaigners defending the NHS and education services and much much more. Thousands of women were motivated by Labour’s manifesto and General election campaign to see that there is an alternative.
Labour Women’s conference should be a place where these issues are debated and struggles are reflected. While we hope to some extent it will be, we have concerns that that potential will not be fulfilled.
The process of getting delegated has been convoluted, with no proper involvement of CLP women’s forums. CLP’s were invited to elect delegates but many have not done so. Women who are delegated to Annual conference were told by head office they could choose to be delegates to women’s conference – without a mandate from women in the party. Other women who tried to register to come along as visitors were told it was full!
Four policy areas have been selected, purportedly by delegates and apparently statements will be discussed – though even now when the agenda has finally been circulated it’s not clear how this will be structured.
Labour Women Leading
Women in the Labour Party who support the current leadership have been developing the Labour Women Leading network. We organised a conference in the spring attended by over 100 women, despite our limited resources for publicity and the fact that Theresa May had just called the General election, so many women not surprisingly prioritized local activity.
A range of speakers talked about their experiences of working at different levels of the Labour Party and labour movement and their aspirations for the future. The conference itself also organised for people to go out canvassing at the end of the day.
There was good news from the NEC meeting on September 19 which agreed all women shortlists for 46 of the 70 most marginal seats. But without a vibrant women’s organisation backing this up locally and nationally, there is a danger that there could be a backlash against such moves. Labour Women Leading hopes to be part of making sure this doesn’t happen, and that women are supported to put themselves forward.
We are unhappy that the NEC have not yet restored the power of Women’s Conference and intend to keep up the pressure to make sure that happens as soon as possible. We want a conference over two days, with resolutions of its own and the right to put motions to Annual Conference as well as input into and representation on the National Policy Forum.
These are just some of the reasons we are supporting Jean Crocker and Teresa Clarke as candidates representing CLP’s on the Conference arrangements committee for Women’s Conference, which will be elected this year and will serve for two years.
We want to see more women getting involved in local Women’s forums and the party as a whole facilitating that by giving real political and practical support to CLP and Branch women’s officers.
We are also holding a fringe meeting after Labour Women’s conference – details below
We hope that demands for a fully democratic women’s conference will be debated and agreed at every level of the party. This is a cause that the left as a whole needs to support.
Labour Women Leading fringe meeting
With parliamentary selections in marginal seats due, this meeting will highlight the qualities that progressive women with a range of backgrounds and experiences can bring to Labour representation and policy making.
Saturday 23rd September, 5.30-7.15 p.m. (with networking space afterwards),
Brighthelm Centre, North Road, BN1 1YD
Cat Smith, Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement & Youth Affairs
Emma Dent Coad, MP for Kensington
Cllr. Claudia Webbe, National Executive Committee
Liz Davies, Long-term Labour activist, Hackney Momentum
Christine Blower, NUT
Maria Exall, CWU