Mandy Clare reports on Women’s Conference 2021
It has been just over a week since Women’s Conference 2021 concluded and the Grassroots Labour Women (GLW) Team were happily able to announce a fantastic victory for all six socialist women on their election to the new national Women’s Committee.
A lively campaign went into securing this result, through a collective effort which included social media statements, articles, Tweets and memes, personal videos and several online events including a high profile rally and two fringe meetings. This not only built the profile of the campaign but also supported delegates in preparing for Conference.
We were unsure of the levels of active determination remaining across left women members after a truly dreadful year of mainly disappointing election results and an apparent abandonment at the most critical possible time of our socialist policy platform, but we should not have harboured any doubts. Our nominations looked promising and the result exceeded expectations and demonstrated that left women are indeed alive and kicking in their political resolve within the Party and intent on having their voice heard within this new committee, which is heartening. Here are the results for the CLP section.
Now the Work Begins
The balance of power on the new Women’s Committee will basically sit with whoever can galvanise the lion’s share of votes on any given issue. The committee has a broad membership with 18 voting members and a number of ex officio places. All voting places have yet to be filled, so it isn’t possible to say at this stage how the balance between left and right breaks down, although not all issues brought to the table will be split along left/right lines. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but what we can promise is that we will actively seek views of our women members, will actively support the establishment of local and regional structures so that women can enjoy more direct influence themselves and that we will be transparent and provide regular updates and opportunities for genuine dialogue.
While it would be unfair to expect a first-time online event of the size and complexity of Women’s Conference to be glitch-free, we have been able to begin to gather feedback prior to, during and since Women’s Conference 2021 from members and would like to set some of this out. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’s (CLPD) fantastic Jean Crocker had asked consistently for networking sessions, supported by other Women’s Conference Arrangement Committee (WCAC) members, and this looked likely a few weeks before the Conference, but did not appear on the final agenda. It would have been good for sisters to have online space to share their thoughts, compare notes and seek support, especially if it had been made available in the week leading up to Conference, as not all of the processes were clear to everyone who needed to know in order for the democratic process to work as it should.
It was disappointing that no way was found to share in advance any information with delegates about registration and attendance. There was no indication of which CLPs from different regions and nations, and which affiliated organisations had sent delegates, and therefore often no sense of the numbers in attendance either at fringe events or at the main Conference, nor if wider diversity had been achieved.
All efforts were made by our team to sweep up and answer any burning questions prior to the event through either our online sessions or through the three editions of the Yellow Pages prepared by CLPD volunteers, although in some instances the information was not available to pass on. There did seem to be a lot of issues and questions left unresolved until a very late stage, if at all, which again is why it is important for us to use the opportunity to reflect, learn and make recommendations. Some of this feedback may also help in planning for full Conference in September, especially if that has to be held online. Do keep in touch with CLPD for news about Annual Conference Here
In the absence of a delegate networking facility, some of us involved in the GLW campaign were contacted directly by delegates and other issues were raised on Twitter and in WhatsApp groups. The tech support orange chat box was available during conference, but that would not have been sufficient to resolve every question or issue raised – we have quite a list already – or enable members themselves – or us as your representatives on the Women’s Committee – to identify patterns of issues across delegates, so the purpose of this article is to reach out to find out more about your experiences.
We hope that sharing some of the issues and concerns picked up so far may generate more feedback from delegates so that we can identify any recurring themes, which we can then compile and begin to address through the Women’s Committee and alongside the WCAC, ahead of next Women’s Conference 2022. It should go without saying that the efforts of all support and tech staff behind the scenes, chairs and presenters are appreciated and the purpose of sharing this feedback and inviting more is not to detract from the planning and stress that goes into organising such an important event.
The overall purpose of the Women’s Committee is to oversee the political organisation of women within the Party. The GLW Team want to take this opportunity to work with members to improve on our processes wherever necessary, to increase democracy and the engagement and voice of women members, affiliates, regions and nations. From our point of view as elected members of the GLW Team, this will include addressing areas of under-representation among women. Here are some of the issues we have heard about so far:
- Delegates weren’t clear until very late about how votes would be shared between delegates and there wasn’t sufficient flexibility in transferring that authority to vote should sisters be unable to attend during the allotted time.
- Delegates fed back that they felt the process for hearing appeals on motions that had been ruled out of order was not transparent or independent enough (and didn’t exist at all for ordinary motions, although the website timetable did not make that clear). The same decision-makers that ruled motions out also considered and made decisions on appeals and all appeals were rejected. In other organisations, Conference can vote on whether or not to accept a rejected motion, which seems more open and democratic.
- Delegates felt that only allowing two motions to annual Conference dedicated to women’s issues, when women make up over 50% of the membership (and our issues tend to be sidelined within society) was inadequate. Delegates also expressed a desire to see rule changes permitted via Women’s Conference and not just motions – this was agreed last spring by the NEC but has not yet been implemented.
- A number of ex officio visitors reported that they had not been set up on the platform with access to submit the ‘speaker’ form. This was possible to rectify although this took several contacts, including through the tech chat box and on Twitter, using the conference hashtag and a couple of hours to resolve, so some opportunities to speak in debates were missed. It would be good to hear from any other delegates who had this problem.
- Some delegates felt that the motions and WCAC Reports were published so late that it was difficult to prepare properly for compositing, debates/speeches and voting.
- Not all delegates were aware that each topic group within compositing was permitted if necessary to produce two composites rather than one, and not all compositing chairs appear to have explained this sufficiently clearly to delegates, many of who will have been first-time attendees and new to the compositing process.
- Delegates had in some cases not realised that the assumption would be that the ‘first delegate’ would attend compositing and that if the second delegate planned to attend, officers would need to be informed in advance, in order for the session access link to be sent to the correct delegate.
- Communication from the Labour Party about Women’s Conference was often late and didn’t answer the questions delegates wanted answered – meaning delegates were often reliant on informal networks (where they had access to them).
- Reports have emerged from those attending compositing meetings that in some cases the meetings were heavily steered, so that some proposed changes were effectively prohibited.
- The compositing sessions were too short and delegates were not given sufficient time (in one case, three minutes at the end of the session) to read and sign off the composite, and some did not reflect agreements delegates thought had been made in the meetings as a result.
- One delegate commented that they felt their composite group had been ‘railroaded’ and also noted that what had been said by delegates and then summed up by the chair did not match. Another instance was shared of a delegate having been muted, re-interpreted by the chair and then not permitted to speak again, resulting in what was felt to be an incoherent motion. Delegates in this group were not informed of who was in attendance.
- Concerns were raised that one chair informed delegates at the outset that some sections and words within the composite could not be changed and that there would be no debate about that. The delegates’ chat comments were reportedly ignored by the chair.
- Reports back from delegates attending the Social Care compositing group suggest that the draft composite that was sent out to delegates by the Party prior to compositing was a different one to the one circulated at the outset of the compositing session – the ‘free at the point of use’ wording had been removed between the initial draft being sent out and the start of the compositing session. Some delegates expressed anger about having been curtailed in challenging this once they realised which words had gone missing.
- One CLP requested their support for the composite be withdrawn from the WCAC Report as they felt the composite was poor and the process un-democratic but were told that it was too late for their support to be removed.
- It was also raised by some delegates that the chair of their session had not made clear to delegates that it was within delegates’ power to determine the shape of the composite/s and any proposed wording and not up to the chair, self-appointed individuals or front bench MPs.
- Delegates felt that there was a marked imbalance during debates and wondered whether any efforts were made to seek a balance of views.
- Delegates were unclear as to how decisions were made about which organisations could hold fringe meetings.
- Delegates said they would have preferred to have a very simple bullet point list in advance of Conference of time slots over the weekend when voting would be taking place.
- Delegates were not clear on whether vote-weighting would reflect the total number of CLP members or the number of women in a CLP.
- The point was made that as time had been lost for debating through technical difficulties, the time for debating a composite should be extended in order to hear from more delegates.
- Delegates suggested pre-Conference training / practice sessions be made available to delegates who think they’re likely to want to speak in a debate.
- Delegates asked if sessions could be organised where our elected reps are expected to sit still and listen to us, Labour’s experienced, knowledgeable and sometimes under-used activist base.
- Some delegates who were first time speakers and didn’t manage to be chosen to speak raised that they had been kept in online ‘waiting rooms’ while speakers who had been chosen to speak several times already were chosen again ahead of them.
- Delegates raised that (other than chairs and plenary speakers) names were not posted up and recordings of debates were not made available so that speakers could be followed up or their names included in reports back to CLPs after Conference.
- Linking to this, delegates also raised accessibility issues – in particular the captioning being incompatible with some screens and appearing blurry and struggling through dyslexia to take notes and record names, with one delegate commenting that they felt “anxious, overwhelmed and unsupported”.
- Although delegate costs had been reduced, some low-income attendees felt that the ex officio fee was still very high. The assumption may have been that ex officio members will not be on low incomes but in the case of Councillors for example, this is not always the case.
Tell us what you think!
There is of course also the official Labour Party feedback route for submitting your views on this year’s Women’s Conference and suggestions for conferences to come, which delegates and visitors might also want to complete. This has been sent out by email to delegates and visitors.
Any sisters finding they are facing delays and difficulties in establishing Women’s Branches can find guidance here Here. If you let us know the nature of any difficulties in the above survey, we will follow up from there and support where we can.
The two composite motions that will be sent to full conference by Women’s Conference were:
- Women’s Equality After the Coronavirus – a brilliant composite which urges the Party to formally support the Poverty Emergency declaration!
- Violence Against Women and Girls
Please get in touch if you have any observations, issues or suggestions from Women’s Conference 2021 that may help in planning for future conferences and if you also belong to an under-represented group, please include that when you share your experience if you are happy to. Thanks in advance for your ideas and thoughts so far and thank you to all sisters who voted for us!
Mandy Clare is a Labour Party Councillor in Cheshire West and Chester, Leader’s Champion for Poverty and Inequality, campaigner on poverty and classism and a newly elected member of the National Women’s Committee.
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