by Maria Exall
With the upsurge in members of the Labour Party and the move to the left in the Labour leadership it is time to rebuild the organisation of Labour Women from the grassroots up.
Labour Women’s Network, Fabian Women and other pressure groups within the Party believe the way for Labour to appeal to women voters is to encourage the development of gender quotas for Party positions from councillors, regional Parties, up to the shadow cabinet and the ‘great offices of state’, to have a standalone position of Minister for Women and Equalities when Labour is in Government, and last but not least retain Women Shortlists for parliamentary selections.
All of these are structural changes should be supported but the most significant progressive change that could be implemented this year is a renewed and revitalised Labour Women’s Conference. It is this that has the greatest potential to attract the support of working class women to the Labour Party in the long term as it provides the opportunity for the interests of working class women to be represented at the heart of the Party.
Important democratic reforms are well overdue that could make the Labour Women’s Conference a proper voice for women in CLPs and working women organised in trade unions. These include the Conference becoming a decision making event, and the opportunity for the policy decided there to become Party policy. At present the Labour Women’s Conference takes place on the day before Labour’s Annual Conference and has an attendance of up to a thousand CLP and trade union women. There is loads of energy and ideas at these events but it goes nowhere.
A properly democratic Women’s Conference would acknowledge the importance of intersectionality in current feminist thinking with a voice for all Labour women positive about race, sexuality, trans, ability/disability and age diversity. We need to engage with progressive thinking in the wider feminist movement and critically apply this thinking to the wide diversity of working class women’s interests and concerns.
Key progressive policies implemented by the last Labour Government, including the National Minimum Wage and improvements in parental rights at work, actually originated from Labour’s Women’s organisation. With persisting misogyny and sexism in our society despite some advances for women’s rights in the workplace and key cultural areas over the past decades, it is even more important to debate up-to-date practical policies that will make a real change to women’s lives.
The decision making on these motions at the Labour Women’s Conference should mirror the sovereign decision making at Annual Party Conference, maintaining the 50% CLPs and 50% affiliated organisations (45% Unions, 5% Socialist societies) split. This retains the importance of the trade union link and grounds the Conference in the realities of working women’s lives. In all the democratic demands that are being made in this new era of Labour leadership, the right of Unions to make collective decisions locally, regionally and nationally should be retained. Anti-Union right wing activists in the Labour Party have, for years, tried to water down the trade union link by insisting on individual voting in Party decision making (OMOV). We should not institutionalise the Collins reforms or other concessions to this agenda in any future structure of Labour Women’s Conference, or indeed any other new Party structure. Instead we should recognise that this is precisely the time to make the case for a renewed open and inclusive collectivity within the Labour Party, and in Labour Party and Trade Union relations.
The current Women’s Conference arrangements, including who is invited to speak and the themes of the sessions are controlled by Party staff. There is no mechanism for making decisions transparent let alone accountable. We need a democratic conference arrangement committee.
A revitalised national Labour Women’s Conference could support and encourage existing local Women’s Forums and the creation of many more. We should consider the formation of women’s structures at regional level which can involve regional trade union women’s organisations and women’s officers from across local CLPs as well as other Labour women activists.
We need a proper structure for the Women’s Conference – one which allows the voice of working class women to be represented.