By Ann Henderson
The 2022 Annual Labour Women’s Conference, held on 19/20th March online, heard from women members across the country, with the agenda including eight policy debates, and time for emergency motions and for rule changes to be discussed. With local government elections in May in many areas, including in Scotland and Wales, the National Women’s Committee had expected more of a focus on outward-facing announcements alongside the Conference, and many delegates were disappointed that there was no sign of any Party press releases or social media coverage from our Conference.
Establishing the Labour Women’s organisation must be about more than one Conference a year, important as that is, and it was clear that numbers were down compared to June 2021, along with many accounts of barriers that women were facing locally to organise and establish the new structures. Part of the remit of Women’s Branches is to build links with other organisations in the community – outward facing, campaigning, supporting local groups – which was reflected in some of the speeches to Conference.
Affiliated organisations were represented at Conference too, and the trade union delegates spoke about the challenges for their members as the cost of living crisis escalates. Conference had in fact opened with a contribution from Lou Haigh MP on the sacking by P&O Ferries of over 800 workers.
Some of the most powerful speeches from trade union women came during a debate on pregnancy loss, highlighting the need for women to be supported with paid leave and no fear of disciplinary action when taking time to grieve and recover. Women also told their own personal stories, and despite the isolation that being online brings, the solidarity with each other could be felt.
Other topics covered at Conference included: Women and the Economy; Women and Healthcare; Violence Against Women and Girls; Food Poverty; Women’s Equality After COVID; Women Refugees; and Social Care. Emergency motions were carried on the situation in Ukraine, and on the current University and College Union (UCU) dispute.
Panel discussions and informal networking sessions were set up too. Attendance figures for the conference and break-out events are not yet available, but overall the delegate numbers appeared to be nearer 450, fewer than last year where over 700 were registered. Several delegates welcomed the online format though, indicating that they would not have otherwise been able to attend due to caring responsibilities or health problems. The Labour Party is looking at ‘hybrid’ ways of working going forward. Many delegates missed the face to face conversations though, and the opportunities to share ideas and support in a much more spontaneous way than the online format allows.
Elections were held for the Women’s Conference Arrangements Committee, a two-year term of office, with reps from the CLP section and from the affiliated organisations. The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and a number of other organisations from the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance supported a Grassroots Labour Women team of three – Gillian Arrindell, Jean Crocker, and Selina Norgrove.
All three were elected and are ready to start work along with the trade union reps, learning from the recent Conference, and making sure that next year’s Women’s Conference in the spring really does involve everyone, and is a centrepiece of the Party’s political and activist organising. This year too many motions did not reach the compositing process, as ridiculously short notice was given to delegates who were then unable to attend the relevant meetings. Some organisations such as the Socialist Education association (SEA) found their motion had been ruled out of order, although it clearly spoke about a majority female workforce – the SEA appealed successfully, but there was then no route to take it to conference. Changes in procedures must be made next year.
Overall, this was a very political and engaged Conference, for those who were able to get into speak and to join in some of the panels.
Anneliese Dodds MP as Shadow Minister for Women and Equality and Party Chair attended and spoke with delegates at the end of Day One. The Women’s PLP is represented on the National Women’s Committee by Karin Smyth MP who was also in attendance and ran a lunchtime session. Harriet Harman MP participated in a well attended session on women’s history and Labour representation. Theuse of pre-recorded messages has increased, and this year included the remarks from Keir Starmer, which many felt to be inadequate.
The National Labour Women’s Committee was elected last June and had very little input to shaping the conference – this needs to change. The Committee, and Women’s Branches up and down the country, need the resources and attention which will demonstrate the Party leadership is serious about recruiting, organising, and listening to women.
Ann Henderson is Vice Chair of CLPD and a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee. She writes in a personal capacity.
Image: Party Conference 2021, by Emma Tait.
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