MARIA EXALL is convinced the voices and ideas of rank and file women activists in the Labour Party have to be given appropriate political status and be incorporated fully in the policy-making process
With our current standing in the polls the Labour Party needs urgently to review how it appeals to women voters. While such a review should include structural changes like gender quotas for party positions including the shadow cabinet and the “great offices of state,” a standalone position of minister for women and equalities and of course all-women shortlists for selection — all these were raised in the recently released Labour Women’s Network survey.
The most significant progressive change that could be implemented this year is a renewed and revitalised Labour women’s conference (LWC).
At present the Labour women’s conference takes place on the day before Labour’s annual conference. It has proved very popular with regular attendance of up to a 1,000 CLP and trade union women. But important democratic reforms are necessary to make the conference a proper voice for women in CLPs and working women organised in trade unions.
These include the conference becoming a decision-making event and the opportunity for the policy decided there to become party policy via annual conference resolutions and via the National Policy Forum.
First, it is necessary then for women’s conference to have the opportunity to debate and vote on motions from CLPs, women’s forums and affiliated organisations.
The decision-making at the Labour women’s conference should mirror the federal nature of the sovereign decision making at annual party conference with 50 per cent CLPs and 50 per cent affiliated organisations. This would ensure the issues we debate reflect the interests and concerns of working-class women in our local communities and in our workplaces.
Second, the decisions of the LWC should be the way for CLP and trade union women to directly input into party decision making. We want policy to come from the bottom up — not top down.
However well intentioned the leadership or senior women members of the party are, the best way to reach out to women Labour voters and potential Labour women voters is policy developed from the experience of working-class women up and down the country. It is worth remembering that key progressive policies including the national minimum wage actually originated from Labour’s women’s organisation — our demand became party policy and was then implemented by a Labour government.
A renewed national LWC could help revitalise existing local women’s forums and encourage the creation of many more. These could form the focus of grassroots campaigning by CLPs on women’s issues on a borough-wide or city basis.
We should consider the formation of women’s structures at regional level which can involve regional trade union women’s organisations and women’s officers from across local CLPs as well as other Labour women activists.
We need to retain all the best features of the current annual women’s conference but improve its democracy and accountability.
While informal sessions and invited speakers should be a part of a vibrant annual women’s event the arrangements for the conference must be accountable and the opportunity to make policy is necessary and vital.
We should make sure that women’s conference is inclusive and shows the diversity of Labour women’s experience whatever our race, sexuality, disability or age.
The current arrangements are haphazard. There is no transparent decision-making on the speakers invited or the themes of the sessions. There is no provision for any delegate-based decision-making. The only current output from the conference is a short report is made at annual conference on the proceedings of the women’s conference from the day before — but who makes it and what they say is not subject to any real accountability. Reform is well overdue.
Labour women active in the workplace through their trade unions and women in local parties active in their local communities want their say. We want the opportunity to come together and decide the priorities for women in the party’s political agenda, and to debate the positive effect for women of Labour’s policies.
To develop our democracy we need a proper structure for the women’s conference — one which allows the voice of women at the grassroots to be heard. It is time to rebuild the organisation of Labour women from the bottom up.