At the end of February, Rita O’Brien and I attended the first standalone, policy making, National Women’s Conference in twenty years as Canterbury CLP’s delegates. Over two days a thousand Labour Women from around the country gathered to debate, share information and to raise each other up. There were 8 motions to be debated over the two days:
4 motions proposed by CLP’s included;
- Rights for Migrant Women
- Early Years Education and Childcare
- Abortion Rights
4 motions were proposed by affiliates and they included;
- Social Care
- Violence Against Women and Girls
- Universal Credit and Employment Support
- Women in the workforce
Women in the workforce was first up for debate and covered issues like flexible working patterns, policies around parental leave and addressing the disproportionate burden of childcare responsibilities. It was timed to co-incide with Dawn Butlers launch of our important new manifesto commitment (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/23/labour-promises-universal-right-to-flexible-working-from-day-one) that in government we would offer a universal right to flexible working from day one. This law change is absolutely necessary if we hope to close the gender pay gap and dismantle structural barriers in place that hold women back. This new policy will make it more possible for paid work and caring commitments to be shared equally between men and women.
During the remaining debates our CLP was well-represented. First, Canterbury Councillor Jean Butcher appeared on the main stage as the proposer of the Social Care motion in her capacity as Unison rep. I was then chosen on the Sunday to participate in the debate around abortion rights. I argued that the motion proposed to conference didn’t go far enough in terms of prioritising equal access to abortion provision for poor and marginalised women across the UK. The current provision requires too much of women and girls often requiring them to travel long distances to clinics, taking time off work they can ill afford, not to mention the physical and emotional discomfort of having to travel following the procedure.
The motion our CLP had put forward was on the misogyny of austerity (following the Alston report at the end of last year,) with our ambition being to scrap Universal Credit in favour of a system of social security that treats people with dignity, compassion and provides them the security they need when they need it. It was chosen for compositing as part of the Universal Credit and Employment Rights Motion, so Rita attended the compositing meeting with Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Margaret Greenwood. This motion was then one of the two that was voted to be taken forward to main conference which is fantastic as the disproportionate burden of austerity on women is a critical issue. Women are often referred to as the “shock absorbers of poverty” for this reason, and we heard from plenty of women who testified to this experience. (I’ve written more on this here – https://www.canterburylabour.org.uk/dear-helen-whately/). The other motion that was voted to be taken forward was Rights of Migrant Women.
We attended a fantastic Fringe event put on by “Labour Women Leading” which is a group that aims to create socialist women leaders within the Labour Party and we heard from a brilliant young Trade Unionist called Lauren Townsend who has been involved through Unite with the TGI Fridays Strikes, we heard from Greenham Common Women who shared their experience of feminist campaigning over many years. And we heard some great off the record comments from Dawn Butler on forging ahead as a woman within the Labour Party.
If you want to hear more on that come to our next Women’s Forum on Wednesday 7-9pm at the Umbrella Cafe in Whitstable.. On Labour Women Leading, their AGM will be on the 6th April in London, I’ll be attending. Let me know if you are interested in coming too. I will also be putting forward a motion at some stage that we affiliate with them, probably after their AGM.
The most powerful part of the conference was hearing over and over from women around the country who are harmed by Tory austerity, or who are using their voices to speak up for those who cannot. We heard from carers at breaking point, single mothers struggling with being worse off since moving onto Universal Credit, victims of domestic violence who cannot gain access to legal aid, migrant women who are victims of the hostile environment, women whose children aren’t getting the mental health support they so desperately need, women from Northern Ireland who don’t have access to legal abortion, and women on zero hours contracts unsure how they will feed their families from and one week to the next, and on and on. But the mood was unbreakable, positive and hopeful as we saw and heard from amazing women trade unionists, activists, campaigners, councillors, MP’s and Shadow Cabinet members all coming together, working towards a shared ambition of a Labour Government, Labour Councils up and down the country and a better society for the many, not the few.