“It is deeply disappointing that the Labour Party is not this year holding a stand-alone Women’s Conference, but has instead tacked a day on in advance of Party conference.”
By Labour Women Leading
The Forde report, which was commissioned by the Labour Party, and was published last year, did not only highlight issues around how the Labour Party deals with racism and the ways in which factionalism has undermined proper processes, but also picked up on issues of sexism. The report stated that there are “serious problems of discrimination in the operations of the party” and noted “undoubted overt and underlying racism and sexism apparent in some of the content of the WhatsApp messages between the party’s most senior staff.”
This is borne out by the experience of many women activists, with large numbers of us experiencing casual sexism, institutional barriers and in some cases direct harassment and assault.
Despite this, and the fact that women and girls make up over 50% of the UK population, fewer than 5% of the complaints dealt with by the Labour Party’s NEC relate to sexism or sexual harassment. This suggests that women either don’t think of making complaints, or, perhaps more likely, that they don’t have confidence that the Party has proper systems to deal with them. Given that an investigation by UN Women UK found that 97% of women aged 18-24 had been sexually harassed, it is not credible that the low level of complaints reflects incredibly low levels of sexism and harassment through all levels of the Party. Indeed, we have seen in recent coverage of allegations that some male MPs appear to have perpetrated serious sexual harassment, let alone those who may have acted in a sexist way. It also seems that other men working in the Parliamentary estate including members of the press corps are part of the problem.
The Fawcett Society has recently undertaken research which demonstrates that a huge 97% of Councils are male dominated. Only 39% of Councillors are women, and only 35% of MPs. Labour has taken action to address this gap, with the 2019 election seeing a 51% of Labour MPs elected being women, and with 47% of Labour Councillors presently being women. However, Labour cannot currently use all-women shortlists for parliamentary selections as women are not currently under-represented, and so there is a real risk of progress being lost. It is also the case that only 28% of Labour Council leaders are women, and it appears that there is a higher turnover of female Councillors than of males.
This all matters because many women’s experiences are so often different to those of most men – we have different safety concerns, we are more likely to be looking after children and providing support to older and disabled people, we are more likely to use public transport and to work in the public sector, and of course we earn less and have lower pensions.
A number of women will face additional barriers and/or discrimination because they are disabled, are black, asian or from an ethnic minority, are LGBTQ+ and/or are older or young or have another protected characteristic. The increasing digitalisation of essential services such as health and social security is creating new barriers for some women.
In the light of the above, it is deeply disappointing that the Labour Party is not this year holding a stand-alone Women’s Conference, but has instead tacked a day on in advance of Party conference. A stand alone conference attracts delegates who are specifically committed to women’s organisation in the party and in the community, and allows space for debate about the issues that matter to us. This year’s arrangement means that delegates are likely to be predominantly women who are attending Party conference and who are being asked by their CLPs to double up.
It is vitally important that the Party listens seriously to women and that it demonstrates that it is taking action to address the current situation. This could be done in a number of ways:
- Committing to restoring a standalone Women’s Conference from next year (as provided under rule)
- Developing (with women members) a plan to tackle sexism in the party as part of the response to the Forde report, considering how to encourage more women to be active at all levels and how to address practical barriers. This should include tracking the number of ward and CLP officers who are women, as well as Cllrs and Parliamentary candidates so that progress can be measured.
- Women’s Branches should be supported and have an important role to play in supporting and encouraging women and contributing to policy debate and sharing good practice.
- Engaging women members in working to improve the informal culture within the party – whilst in some cases, the disciplinary process will the appropriate route to tackle sexism, in other situations political education may be more effective and may lead to a wider and beneficial cultural shift which prevents other women being held back and which may improve engagement of other equalities groups.
- Ensuring that the next manifesto has clear policies which will address the gender pay and pension gap, which will address the issues faced by women who are parents and carers, and build on the policies passed by Women’s Conferences. It should also commit to altering the law to ensure that All Women Shortlists can be used to maintain parity of representation.
- Actively promoting the Women’s Structures in the party, as well as extending the equalities structures to include BAME and disabled members branches and national committees.
Labour activists can take action to support this – do make sure that you nominate the left slate for National Women’s Committee (Zoe Allan, Claudia Boes, Chloe Hopkins, Juliet Miller, Helen Smith and Cecile Wright and that you send delegates to National Women’s Conference. The deadline for nominations and delegates is 23 June at mid-day.
At a local level, we all have a role to play in making sure that our activities genuinely engage women – from supporting and encouraging women to take up ward and CLP roles, to speakers at General Meeting, and challenging everyday sexism, but the Party needs to take women seriously at a central level and to start to build democratic and inclusive structures and cultures that will deliver the transformative change that our communities so badly need.
- You can follow Labour Women Leading on Facebook and twitter.
- Labour Women Leading are urging activists to nominate the left slate for National Women’s Conference: Zoe Allan, Claudia Boes, Chloe Hopkins, Juliet Miller, Helen Smith and Cecile Wright. The deadline for nominations is on June 23rd.
- Take part in the upcoming Arise Festival 2023 session held in defence of Labour Party democracy on June 14th: ‘The Case for Labour Party Democracy – for Members’ Rights & the Union Link,’ register and find out more here.