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As the pandemic exacerbates inequalities, Labour’s response must reflect the need for focused & positive action to tackle them – Ann Henderson

” With domestic violence on the rise, racism on the increase, high unemployment, & the UK Government seeking to blame refugees for the pressure on essential services, never has the need for a radical response been greater. And women must be at its heart.”

Ann Henderson

By Ann Henderson, Labour NEC member & candidate

As the COVID-19 pandemic highlights and exacerbates inequalities in our society, Labour’s response must reflect the need for focused and positive action interventions to tackle and address those inequalities. Rounds of applause for care workers and health workers do not pay the bills, nor do they ensure a safe working environment in all workplaces.

With domestic violence on the rise, racism on the increase, high unemployment, and the UK Government seeking to blame refugees for the pressure on essential services such as housing, health and education, never has the need for a radical response been greater. And women must be at its heart.

For months now, we have heard politicians of all parties paying tribute to women in their communities, women in essential jobs, women working from home whilst caring for shielded family members, and carrying out the bulk of the domestic and childcare tasks at home too. And we hear promises of how it will all be different going forward. How we all now realise how hard women work. How suddenly we have all noticed that cleanliness and good hygiene matters in the public sphere, as well as at home, and that staffing levels and workforce planning must be more than a paper exercise.

This is not ‘news’ to Labour Party women. Nor to many women in the trade union movement. In Scotland in the early days of the Independent Labour Party, strong voices such as Mary Barbour, the first woman to be a Labour councillor in Glasgow, representing the Govan ward in 1920, campaigned for municipal baths, laundries and washhouses; for free milk for children; for home helps, for pensions for mothers. In Clydebank, home to the Singer factory employing over 11,500 workers mainly women, a walkout in 1911 was led by young women in a dispute over workload and pay. One of these was Jane Rae, who lost her job over her role in the strike. A suffragette, and an active member of the ILP, joining after hearing Keir Hardie speak, Jane was active in the anti-war movement in 1914, in the co-operative movement and the temperance movement. She went on to be a Labour councillor in 1922 in Clydebank, and by 1928 was also a Justice of the Peace. Jane was known for taking a firm stand when dealing with any man who had mistreated his wife.

Arguing for the enforcement of a Living Wage as a minimum in the care sector during recent months is of course a good thing, but again, not a new idea – Mary McArthur and other amazing women in our movement were in part responsible for the Liberal Government of 1909 bringing in Wages Boards, to try to regulate and address the pitiful wages being paid in Sweated Trades, jobs in which mainly women worked.

These references are a brief recognition of the movement from which we come. These three women’s contributions are replicated up and down the country, and have shaped workplaces and communities for the better.

And remember too, that at the time of those struggles, none of those women would have had the vote. Full extension of the franchise to all women over the age of 21, did not come until 1929.

These women tackled injustice as it faced them, whilst they also understood that parliamentary representation and equal rights as citizens were essential to build a society which would put human rights and equality before profit.

Labour women had their own conference in the early days, and the Co-operative women’s Guild was a strong women’s organisation. Proposals on childcare, on family planning clinics, on decent housing for all, on rent controls, on equal pay, on maternity pay, on fair treatment for women pensioners – all recorded in the archives. And often, particularly at local level, they influenced and shaped the services that were provided.

One of the very positive recommendations from the recent Labour Party Democracy Review, as adopted at our 2018 Annual Labour Party conference, was the decision to re-establish a national Labour Women’s Organisation.

The first delegate based, policy making, Labour Women’s Conference for around 20 years, took place in Telford in February 2019. It was fantastic. Nearly two thousand diverse women, from all across the country, from CLPs and trade unions, debating and discussing the most important issues of the day. The two motions that were chosen as the priority to then go to the Annual conference in Brighton last autumn were: Universal Credit, employment support and collective bargaining; and Rights of Migrant Women, including the call for ending the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ policy. That was prior to the public health emergency – and a very clear illustration of why listening to women members can give us direction. On both topics, the experience of recent months can only confirm that those priorities were right, as this discrimination and injustice is amplified during the pandemic.

As a current NEC member in the CLP section, and running again for election this year, I am committed to rebuilding that Labour Women’s Organisation, in every locality, in Wales and Scotland, and at national level.  Electing accountable women representatives, continuing commitments to positive action measures such as All Women Shortlists, and ensuring women in our Party can be heard without fear of harassment– this will make a stronger Labour Party, and must drive forward bold, positive interventions that tackle women’s inequality, in response to the pandemic.

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