Labour Women’s Conference votes left again, so what next? – Rachel Garnham, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy

“A common theme was that the policies did not go nearly far enough to address the issues we face as women – from the climate crisis, to funding of public services, to the gender pay gap.”

By Rachel Garnham, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) Vice-Chair

This year’s Annual Labour Women’s Conference, held only nine months after the 2021 conference and once again online, saw a strong showing for the left in both policy and elections.

As always at Women’s Conference, delegates’ personal testimonies and stories of community action provided strong motivation for agreeing a series of policies that would address the issues women have been facing over the past year. Topics covering women and the economy, covid, the NHS and Social Care explored the cost of living crisis and the impact of the pandemic, both of which have disproportionately impacted women, particularly as such a large part of the workforce in the NHS and social care. There were also important policies relating to equality in the workplace for menopausal women, a focus on maternity rights particularly for BAME women, and support in the case of pregnancy loss.

A common theme was that the policies did not go nearly far enough to address the issues we face as women – from the climate crisis, to funding of public services, to the gender pay gap. This was particularly the case for the so-called ‘post-covid’ motion, where in the debate it was noted that the pandemic has not gone away, women, particularly those who are disabled, BAME, clinically vulnerable or working in the NHS or social care are still bearing the brunt, and that Labour needs to do much much more to put pressure on the government and hold them to account for the ongoing death toll. Conference agreed to support a comprehensive strategy to protect health including Covid-safe schools and public transport.

Although explicit criticism of Wes Streeting’s comments around use of the private sector were unfortunately lost in the composite, the conference did agree to call on the Women’s Committee to work with MPs and trade unions to launch a major campaign to defend the NHS; and for Labour to unambiguously reject NHS privatisation. There was also an important debate around food poverty, where Conference voted for the Right to Food Policy to be at the heart of the next general election manifesto. And the Conference voted to support the current industrial action by university workers, noting the disproportionate impact of pension, pay and workload issues on women as well as the gender pay gap.

The Violence Against Women and Girls debate and motion underlined the importance of having a dedicated space for women to discuss the issues we face and how they need addressing. It noted that since the murder of Sarah Everard at least 81 more women have been killed in this country; and demanded much stronger action from the government and commitments from the Labour leadership. Both affiliates and CLPs supported this topic to go through to Annual Conference but, for reasons that have not been explained, that meant that the affiliates’ second choice Women and the Economy will also go through rather than the CLP second choice on Refugee Women, which includes supporting a commitment for Labour to repeal the Nationality and Borders Bill.

So far so good, and there were positive results in elections to the Women’s Conference Arrangements Committee with convincing victories for the Grassroots Labour Women trio of Gillian Arrindell, Jean Crocker and Selina Norgrove.

Rule changes were a mixed bag, with two CLP rule changes that would have improved women’s engagement with conference, defeated, despite well over 90 per cent support in the CLP section, and endorsement from the National Women’s Committee. However a rule change allowing access to data for women organising in CLPs was agreed and should help to address one of the major barriers faced by women locally. This Rule change now goes forward to Annual Conference in September 2022 via the NEC, and should be supported to achieve the required majority to go into the Party Rulebook.

This was the first time in recent years that Women’s Conference was enabled to discuss rule changes, and Conference has demonstrated that it is useful for women to discuss and agree our structures as women members, and we look forward to more rule change debates in the future as we seek to empower and engage women members.

There were less positive aspects of the Conference – the lack of support and engagement from the Leadership was palpable, demonstrated both in the run up as under-resourcing led to poorly communicated and managed processes; and at the Conference, where we were treated to a series of recorded messages and barely an acknowledgement externally that the Conference was even taking place, let alone any serious commitments to improving policies in the interests of women.

So what’s next? We have a left WCAC and a left National Women’s Committee – but they haven’t been able to sufficiently make their presence felt due to under-resourcing which is likely to get worse after this Conference due to the loss of key staff. We have great policy, engaged women members and a desire for greater organising locally and regionally; but as women members we need support, resources, and ongoing political education for all women, not just those handpicked for the leadership programmes.

Most of all we need the policies agreed to be vocally adopted and championed – they are policies women desperately need, which will be popular with women voters. We need a Leadership that will champion women, and the issues we care about and which affect us, as the last Leadership did.

For more information about the issues and rule changes discussed at the Conference, please see CLPD’s Yellow Pages.


Featured Image: Conference hall at the Labour Party Conference 2016

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