Oh, what a lovely conference

The women of my CLP (Constituency Labour Party) had a very rocky road to this Women’s Conference. Our CLP has a delegate system, so nothing happens quickly – and by the time it had dawned on us all that planning and discussion would be necessary to make our input to conference, my co-delegate and I had been elected at GC (General Committee), the CLP’s preferred deadline for motions was past, and Christmas was upon us.

Last minute dash

Hastings women's forum
Hastings Women’s Forum in the process of inventing itself

We thrashed around for a couple of weeks – could we impose a choosing of motions on a pre-meet of our nascent Women’s Forum? No – that meeting needs to be about set ups. Could we have a special meeting called by the CLP? No – just no, from the EC (Executive Committee). So we didn’t get to put in a motion. Our CLP secretary did everything she could in the available time, so at least we had delegates, and all our women got a chance to vote in the priorities ballot. When I looked in on some online women’s groups, I realised we’d been lucky to get that far. Quite a few CLPs hadn’t managed to register delegates at all – and in some (good grief) their ECs didn’t think it was the business of their female members to make such decisions.

Ann Henderson speaking at CLPD
Advice from Ann Henderson

So Labour has a proper women’s conference again – hooray! And the difficulties we faced before we even got there told us this was going to be quite a battle. If you’d had any dealings with the Main Annual Conference, from the very start, you could feel the difference. No photo ID, no security gates, no months and months of pre-amble, no emails full of info about fringes and slates – in my case, no actual information at all because what info there was was sent out by email when I was already on my way to Telford (yes, really, there are people who don’t have smartphones to pick up email 24/7).

A little bit of fringe

Ann Henderson answering questions
Q and A

I did have two pieces of info – because I knew the people involved, I knew there was a CLPD (Campaign for Labour Party Democracy) fringe meeting on the Friday night, and I knew where it was. I also knew there was a ‘Labour Women Leading’ fringe meeting on the Saturday. (That one got crowded off my schedule once conference started, so if you see a write up of it anywhere, please let me know!)


Asking for more

Diane Abbott answering questions
Advice from Diane Abbott

I was fascinated by the feeling that women were actually subversives at their own conference. The set up and the rules were as per any conference anywhere but as well as the usual fight with bureaucracy to make things happen, there was an undercurrent of women wanting to throw over the procedures and do some real women’s work. The CLPD meeting had elements of both issues in it. The meeting was addressed by CAC (Conference Arrangements Committee) members, but also by Ann Henderson and Diane Abbott, both of whom had plenty of practical advice to offer on how to drag conference where we wanted it to go. An unequivocal message from them and from most of the attendees who spoke, was this:

Next year, we need more notice of conference, we need CLPs to be clear that this is women’s business, and women get to make the decisions about delegates and motions; we need more opportunities to influence what goes on before we arrive and when we get there; we want a better system of priorities, so that a wider range of topics are up for discussion, and we want to know why only two of our motions go to conference – and why was there no procedure in place for emergency motions? Why was it all so last minute?

linda bellos
Coffee time discussions

We learned that there had been no plans to produce a CAC report – well we know now from the last two years’ main conferences that that’s really important because it’s the CAC report each morning that alerts members to anything that’s not going the way it was intended – and referencing back on conference reports is the only way open to delegates to pull them back onto the desired track. CAC member Jean Croker pointed out that the Women’s Conference is a work in progress, that the NEC had been making the decisions, and that we need to ensure that in future, that is not the case – a job for the new Women’s Commission, she suggested.

Demanding more

Well, the CAC and others stayed up most of Friday night apparently, what with some very feisty compositing meetings and the realisation that reports were required. When the delegates finally emerged from the compositing meetings, they were not happy – not just because they’d missed the night of general nattery and drinkery everyone else had had, but because they felt short-changed. It wasn’t just that many topics never reached the priorities ballot, let alone the final agenda. It was also that the compositing chairs seemed to have far too much of a managerial role in what came out of those meetings. I have said elsewhere that the results of the motions was a foregone conclusion. I was left wondering if there was a remit to make this a rousing, cheering, non-controversial conference. I’ll give one example.

The Battle for Climate Change action

restaurant chat
Restaurant discussions

One of the motions my own CLP was considering (trying to consider) was about the climate crisis. It was presented to the CLP by my co-delegate Rachel Lever. Rachel appeared at the CLPD fringe meeting along with some women from TSSA, who had also hoped to bring a climate-change related motion. Most of the climate related motions considered across the country went the same way as Rachel’s – we were just too late – but the problem the TSSA motion had was a different one – categories. Their motion was about green jobs. They thought it should have been included in the ‘Women in the Workforce’ set, but it wasn’t seen as a part of workplace issues, so simply disappeared, long before delegates had any input and, apparently, the possibilities open to us to appeal and discuss did not include opportunities to comment on categories and priorities decided before conference – why not?

Climate Change was barely mentioned at conference, although it was on all our minds. There were several other very hot issues (according to the coffee table discussions) that would have had far more attention had delegates had more input into conference planning.

Reference back! Point of order!

bar at Labour Women's Conference
Bar room discussions

Well, we did get our CAC reports, and there was indeed a chorus of reference backs at the opening of the first main session. For some reason, the situation had gone right back to how it was at the start of Brighton 2017, where the top table seemed to start out thinking they could brush off all that sort of thing. The women persisted, and they got a hearing but – Dear Labour Party, we have a generation of members who’ve learned their politics now. We know what you’re supposed to do after hearing a reference back and it is not to say “okay, those of you who’ve called reference back can come to the CAC office later for an explanation.” And as for points of order – there were a couple called and ignored that I felt amounted to serious injustices. I’ve emailed the people concerned, and hope to do a separate write up of those later. The whole experience though, left a nasty suspicion in mind that some people thought they were laying on a nice entertainment for the women, and that they weren’t obliged to do any serious politics. That just won’t do, I’m afraid.

Michelle Dorrell at women's conference
Here’s one woman who promised to come to Hastings for the next GE campaign

I loved Telford 2019

I loved that there was very little security, it made socialising easier and reduced the inevitable queuing – but I did remember what a friend of mine told me once, when I met him backstage at a festival where he was performing. I commented on the fact that the heavies with the lethal shades hadn’t stopped me. “Oh it’s easy to get in and see us, he said, because we aren’t precious people. You’d never manage to get near them,” and he prodded a thumb in the direction of the richandfamous main act, corralled safely in their well-guarded paddock.

I loved that I was busy from the moment I arrived to the moment I left, because there was so much fascinating stuff going on. If there were other fringe events, I didn’t get to hear about them but I had no more time anyway. Not surprising when the main conference is a very busy three days, and two is considered enough for the women. I do wonder why that is.

Jeremy Corbyn arrives at Women's Conference
Here, that’s a man!

I loved the personal and passionate speeches from the platform, many of which were sharings of personal pain and compassion – but I was horribly aware that the topics would be judged, by a BBC reporter for example, not to be serious news. Politics should be boring. If it was working right, politics would be almost entirely about making sure everyone’s fed, housed, educated and safeguarded properly. Not nearly as exciting as wars and statesmanship, but my goodness it is the nuts and bolts that we need. Above and beyond all, what we need is discussion and action on climate change. Come on, Labour Party, you know we want to!

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