Politics and the pandemic – building a strong Labour Women’s Organisation

By Ann Henderson and Rachel Garnham

As women struggle to maintain work, support family, and remain involved in their trade union and in community life, with mounting evidence that the progress made in every sphere is being rolled back rapidly, there has never been a greater need for Labour women to organise, and to be supported to do so.

The Labour Women’s Conference held in Telford in February 2019 brought thousands of women together, from local Labour parties and from trade unions across the country. A vibrant and lively event, women welcomed the chance to get together, to learn and to organise. Labour’s polices were enriched by hearing the voices of women, on the economy, on violence against women, on childcare and social care, on housing, on local government.

Two topics were voted on by that Women’s Conference to go to the autumn 2019 Labour Conference – the rights of migrant women, including tackling the injustices of ‘no recourse to public funds’; and on Universal Credit and opposing a punitive and inadequate welfare system. Both these motions were spoken to and agreed as policy at that 2019 Labour conference in Brighton, and key points found their way into the 2019 General Election manifesto.

This was a step towards implementing the recommendations of the 2018 Democracy Review. And for those of us who have been active in the Labour Women’s organisation for many years, through conferences and back to the local Labour Women’s Sections in the 1980s, it was a very positive step. We know that accountable and participative democratic structures make the Labour Party stronger, not weaker – and involving our women members fully in making policy is the right thing to do.

So where are we now? The promise of an annual Labour Women’s Conference fell by the wayside in 2020, as Labour, along with all political parties, struggled with the need for rapid responses to the public health emergency.  CLPs temporarily stopped meeting; a leadership contest dominated the use of Party resources, followed by a change in General Secretary and major overhaul of Labour’s internal operations. Meanwhile, as CLP reps on Labour’s National Executive Committee at that time, we argued consistently for ways to be found to continue to organise and keep in touch with the Party membership, including women members.

The impact of the pandemic was felt most sharply in the workplaces and communities that should be represented most vociferously by Labour.  In the Westminster Parliament, in Wales and in Scotland, elected Labour members have tried, with varying degrees of success, to develop responses which do target and best support those most vulnerable.

A strong Labour Women’s organisation must be at the heart of our response. The purpose of Labour Women’s Forums, now called Branches, is clearly laid out in the Rule Book which was updated and strengthened in 2019, with more accountability and more emphasis on the importance of participating in the party more widely, but also in engaging with local communities and women’s third sector organisations.  Trade union voices on the NEC, in particular Labour Treasurer, Unite’s Diana Holland, have also consistently argued for the re-establishment of a Labour women’s organisation, strengthening the prospect of joint work led by women across the labour movement.

The NEC, prior to the elections which changed the composition of the NEC in November 2020, re-affirmed its commitment to convening annual women’s conferences. It also agreed a process to elect a National Labour Women’s Committee to lead on building that organisation.

The new Committee will be elected at the 2021 Annual Women’s Conference. Dates have been agreed (26-27th June 2021) and the Conference planning is underway, for a fully virtual event, with the powers to debate and set policy priorities.  As the Women’s Conference Arrangements Committee has made clear, this is a one- off, and there is no intention to rely on virtual conferences in the future.

Online engagement works better for some Party members and supporters in fact, a point which Disability Labour has highlighted and should not be lost, including many women with caring responsibilities. But it also has the potential to exclude many of our members whose voices we need to hear and represent – those who do not have access to the internet, or where choices have to be made about how technology is used in a household.

The deadlines for delegates, and for nominations for that new Labour Women’s Committee is midnight Monday 10th May 2021, and the deadline for motions for consideration is midday Friday 28th May 2021. There will also be an emergency motions procedure.

CLPs are now getting used to meeting online, so how are we actually supporting Labour women to organise locally?

The experience of many women’s officers up and down the country has been less than satisfactory.  Under the old arrangements, Labour women’s forums in some areas had been set up and were bringing women together, often across several constituencies, campaigning and encouraging women to be more active at every level. Informal networks too, had supported women in coming forward for elections.  CLPs and Women’s Officers now want to either convert the Women’s Forums into the new Women’s Branches with the additional powers that the Rule Book brings, or to set up new Women’s Branches in their CLPs.

It should also be noted that the current Westminster PLP now has a majority of women in its membership, with a welcome increase in women of colour. Marsha de Cordova, as Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities has been vocal in speaking up for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women and for disabled women, in holding the Tory government to account.

Despite the evidence of the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women’s lives, compounded by the disproportionate impact on disabled people and BAME communities, and the scope for learning from all these women through our Labour women’s organisation, the actual experience on the ground is different.

The Labour Party leadership appears to be holding back. Only Women’s Forums which had already been recognised as ‘official’ are being supported to hold the necessary online AGMs, and there is absolutely no provision for new women’s branches (as agreed at the 2019 Annual Party conference and endorsed by the NEC) to be set up. Regional Party organisers are telling women members there is no help available and that meetings are not allowed.

This will effectively bar women from exercising their right to elect delegates and submit motions to the Annual Women’s Conference, without going through the previous full CLP route, which in some areas resulted in motions not being submitted or delegates being imposed. And it is not what was agreed at the NEC last summer. While a staged roll out of the new arrangements may have been necessary as everyone became familiar with the IT for online meetings, it was agreed as exactly that – a staged roll out.

This must be addressed urgently by the current NEC and the Party leadership.

Any idea that it is low priority and must wait until after the May elections misses the point.

A strong national Labour women’s organisation is not an administrative burden for the Party, as is all too often implied.

A strong Labour women’s organisation at national and local level is essential if we are to remain connected to our own women members in all their diversity, and their experiences of work, family and community.

Every CLP should be given the support needed to establish the new Women’s Branches, to encourage women to take up the delegate positions within CLPs, regionally and nationally. We have to find ways of making sure that Labour’s polices going into the May elections – be that local government, Scottish or Welsh Parliaments – or at the despatch box in Westminster – are grounded, and have women’s priorities at heart.

Ann Henderson and Rachel Garnham were NEC members 2018-2020 (CLP Section) and are members of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy Executive Committee. Ann Henderson was Chair of the NEC Equalities Committee Jan 2019 – Nov 2020.

Image: Labour Conference 2019. Author: Socialist Appeal, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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