Labour Women’s Conference votes Left – Rachel Garnham

“The result demonstrates once again that the left working together on the massive range of issues on which we agree, in a united way, can deliver victories.”

By Rachel Garnham, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy

Labour’s Women’s conference held at the end of June demonstrated that despite the Leadership’s best efforts, from suspensions and demoralisation from Starmer’s relentless pledge-breaking and Evans’ democracy crackdown, the left is very much alive and kicking.

This was Labour’s first women’s conference since February 2019 in Telford, and its first policy-making conference since Starmer became Leader, with all elements held entirely online. It would have been impossible in the current climate to emulate the radical, vibrant positivity of Telford, nevertheless there were positives in policy passed, accessibility (broadly) and in the elections, despite some issues with application of democracy familiar to those who know the right’s tactics in curtailing democratic debate.

The six left CLP candidates achieved an outstanding victory in the elections to the new Women’s Committee (the smallest margin still upwards of 85,000 votes) thanks to their broad left platform, the appetite of delegates for candidates standing for a democratic Labour women’s organisation and a radical policy agenda, and the campaigning efforts of both the candidates and the nine left organisations who came together as Grassroots Labour Women, of which Campaign for Labour Party Democracy was proud to be a part. The result demonstrates once again that the left working together on the massive range of issues on which we agree, in a united way, can deliver election victories, and must be prioritised above the issues which can divide us.  

There were some policy highlights too. As in Telford the highlight of the Conference was the policy debates, with delegate after delegate sharing their powerful individual experiences and expertise, to inform voting. It was such a shame that these sessions so short, interspersed with quite unnecessary panels of the great and the good, reducing the time available to hear from delegates and resulting in many delegates feeling disappointed that they weren’t able to speak on their chosen topic.

Nevertheless, Conference agreed that Labour must:

  • Support Labour-led councils to take actions for women and their families, to support the Poverty Emergency declaration, as put forward by Cheshire West and Chester Council, and to promote Community Wealth Building initiatives such as those supported by Preston Council and North Ayrshire Council;
  • Repeal all anti- trade union laws and create new rights and freedoms for trade unions to help them win a better deal for working people;
  • Develop economic strategies that invest in the infrastructure of a caring economy – public services, childcare, education, health, social care, the environment, safe, affordable public transport and a national independent living service with public ownership and provision of social care at its core, with support for existing successful systems;
  • Advocate a range of measures, including an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and support for a Green New Deal, to keep temperature increases below 1.5°C, create millions of green jobs and cut the substantial majority of emissions by 2030;
  • Support national standards of quality, provision, training and qualifications to create professional, skilled secure care jobs with agreed career structure, pay and conditions -a real living wage for all care workers and a standard contract for care work;
  • Call on the British Government to condemn trade with illegal settlements in Palestine; draw attention to the brutality and discriminatory situation for Palestinians, in particular women, in Palestine and Israel documented in the recent reports by B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch; publicly support the work of the International Criminal Court; Recognise the fundamental rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,  and respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194;
  • Promote changes to funding so early years settings get direct payment from DfE; immediate, meaningful increases to Child Benefit and removal of the two-child cap; and a call for the Shadow Cabinet to actively campaign against the permanent closure of Sure Start Centres;
  • Commit to bring schools in England into an integrated, cooperative, transparent and non-selective education system which ends the free school and academy programmes and re-establishes local leadership of education by bringing all schools back to Local Education Authorities, properly funded to provide services and democratic oversight; and work towards integrating private schools into the public education service.

Additionally an omnibus motion on Violence Against Women and Girls was agreed, which CLPs voted through to be debated at annual conference, alongside a motion on Women’s equality after the coronavirus pandemic, prioritised by the unions. While the VAWG motion has much excellent content, it can, at best, be described as chaotic, voted against by a significant minority of CLP delegates including some of those included in the composite, because it is such a poor reflection of the real action Labour needs to commit to on this important issue and more a random list of statements. Unfortunately, delegates report, this reflected a badly managed compositing session, ridiculously guillotined at two hours for around 40 CLPs and unions, steered away from two composites and delegates told they could only speak once. Other composite meetings, I hear, were subject to well-documented pressure from Shadow Cabinet members and ridiculously weak initial composites from ‘the office’. Thankfully sterling efforts from delegates in defending their wording, and left WCAC members defending the democratic process, ensured mainly positive and coherent policy passed.

This is a positive platform to build on in the current circumstances – and there is no doubt that an online conference, although problematic from a networking (what happened to those promised sessions?) and a transparency perspective, meant the conference was far more accessible to some delegates, particularly some disabled women, those with caring responsibilities, and those geographically distant, which was widely welcomed. I hope the new Women’s Committee will do a proper evaluation including equality monitoring, as agreed by the NEC after Telford, to learn lessons for future conferences – including whether it was really necessary to restrict CLPs to two delegates and not make delegations proportional to the women membership.

It is genuinely exciting to have a new, majority left Labour Women’s Committee that can support the building of Women’s Branches, defend and advance women’s representation, take forward policy agreed at the conference and provide leadership to build the active, vibrant women’s organisation that Labour so desperately needs in order to commit to the policy women need from a Labour government and to retain and win women voters.

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