As a delegate to last year’s stand-alone UK Labour Women’s Conference, I was incredibly disappointed to find out that after months of stalling, Women’s Conference this year is once again being relegated to a on day event before the main party conference in September. It’s not even been properly announced – if I hadn’t been checking LabourList I would have missed the notice from the NEC about the decision. This is a huge shame, given the success of last year’s event, which included a day and a half of policy debates, training sessions, and political education, attended by people who were quite often going to their first political conference. There were fewer interruptions on matters of process or “points of order”, and the lower profile of the conference gave it a much more relaxed air. Speeches in the debates could be extremely moving and personal and the whole event felt like a truly positive step in building something beyond one-off networking events for women members. In my report back to my local party I highly recommended it for people who wanted to get some experience of being a delegate before attending the main conference.
Women in the Labour Party face dismissal, denigration, harassment, and denial across all levels. If you don’t believe me, take a brief look at this recent Twitter thread, which polled women and non-binary members across the movement about their experiences with sexism in the party. People felt “excluded from decisions”, “ideas weren’t taken seriously”, and that they were “held to a different standard” from men. It’s a small poll, but that this is still the prevailing experience in 2020 in our party shows how important it is to carve out space for voices which are otherwise often talked over or ignored and to offer the training they need to fight back against this. Regressing back for a one-day add-on for women’s voices at conference does not fill me with hope that much of the national party recognise this, and instead, appears more that they feel happily able to ‘deprioritise’ it under the guise of focusing on internal and external elections, despite the fact that they’ve had at least a year to plan the event.
Women’s Conference should be a stand-alone event (as should other liberation conferences) to offer a space for people within the movement to connect and organise but most importantly to discuss the impact of policies and events on their lives. Women aren’t a sideshow to politics and the labour movement, but so often our spaces are belittled, reduced to some nice speeches and a rousing chorus of “look how far we’ve come!”, rather than opportunities to develop meaningful inputs into the policy process. While the NEC have said that Women’s Conference will return as a stand-alone event in 2021, with a change of leadership on the horizon, it’s depressing to think that there’s a very real chance that it continues to be reduced back to some nice networking drinks and a leader’s speech, when there is the opportunity for us to do much, much more in building up women’s voices and roles across our policy making and the labour movement.