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It is time to rebuild the organisation of Labour Women from the grassroots 

Inside Labour CorbynWith our current standing in the polls the Labour Party needs urgently to review how it appeals to women voters. Whilst such a review should include structural changes such as 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 matters 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.

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 thousand 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.

Firstly it is necessary then for Women’s Conference to have the opportunity to debate and vote on motions from CLP’s, 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% CLPs and 50% 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.

Secondly the decisions of the Labour Women’s Conference 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 Labour Women’s Conference could help revitalise existing local Women’s Forums and encourage the creation of many more. These could form the focus of grassroots campaigning by CLP’s 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. Whilst informal session 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 Women’s Conference 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.


  1. John P Reid says:

    Instant suspensions for anyone putting sexist stuff would be a start, even if it’s part of ones religion, to feel women are inferior, have to b seatEd seperately

  2. Richard MacKinnon says:

    If women in the Labour Party really want equality for women in the Labour Party then they should abolish Labour Women’s Conference, Labour Woman Network, dismiss talk of a Minister for Women and Equalities as nonsense, as is gender quotas.
    Woman already have equality. This article could have been written in the 1970s. In fact it is blatant sexism to talk in such discriminatory terms and does the cause of equality nothing but harm.

    1. John P Reid says:

      At least pre op, trams or Jack drones shouldn’t gave won a all women’s shortlist
      Also the idea that one of the top 2 jobs should go to a woman ,is silly
      If Alan Johnson had won the deputy a few years ago, didn’t stand down in 2015 the way Harman didn’t stand down in 2010′ then labour would have gad to have had a female leader, so Jeremy couldnt have stood

  3. John Walsh says:

    Disappointed but not completely surprised by comments above.

    Moving on and given that the ‘new kind of politics’ participatory project has stalled (having never actually got off the ground), the input of women’s groups to the overall effort to move to an anti-hierarchical, bottom up, conception of membership has to be very welcome.

    Regarding Women’s Conference, where I am there are regional events organised by Regional Office and so, erm, it doesn’t take long to work out what forces are at work to stymie involvement. Is it possible that Momentum or some other groups could organise an ‘alternative’ Women’s Conference, where you could model the participatory approach?

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      John Welsh,
      I am disappointed with your comment, but the difference between us is, Im going to tell you why Im disappointed.
      Im disappointed because you don’t explain why your disappointed. I find that dismissive of you John. I think it is a touch arrogant of you just to say that your disappointed but not surprised.
      So come on, explain yourself.

      1. John Walsh says:

        OK, fair comment. My disappointment is with your comment ‘women already have equality’ (and I’m not surprised by the other person’s comments).

        Inequality is, of course, something that we see news stories about almost every day. Arguably, it’s almost a casual by-product of the neoliberal agenda and, hopefully that is the neoliberal Achilles heel, given that inequality is a driver for the current leftward shift in politics (see for example The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics). The point being that, politically, equality is an issue where we should be able to shape the agenda – in order to do that, it’s then very useful to be able to understand inequality in all its forms, including how it is manifest with regard to gender. Back to news stories and it seems to me that barely a day goes by without some story about gender inequality (yesterday there was a story about how after becoming a mother is when workplace inequality has a particular impact). I genuinely hope that’s something to reflect on.

  4. Richard MacKinnon says:

    I don’t mean to disrespect you but I don’t know what your talking about. Your discourse and I fear your logic is not just flawed it doesn’t even make sense. Read the sentence;
    “The point being that, politically, equality is an issue where we should be able to shape the agenda – in order to do that, it’s then very useful to be able to understand inequality in all its forms, including how it is manifest with regard to gender”. What does that mean? Are you saying to understand equality you have to understand inequality? is that your point? If so, is that not stating the blindingly obvious?
    John the subject of the article is gender equality and the Labour party. That is it in its entirety. And my point is the more Labour go on about gender equality the more harm it is doing the party. Why? Because woman already have the same voting rights as men. They are not barred from any office because they are women. They already have equality with men. Gender quotas is a vote loser.
    John take a lesson from the Tories. They don’t have women’s conferences or women’s networks they just get on with it and if a woman is a better candidate for a job they elect her.

    1. John Walsh says:

      Apologies that I’m not making sense – I’m trying to work out how this is so.

      When learning about these things I found the phrase ‘the personal is political’ contained (to use the lingo) a threshold concept. I took it to mean that what were previously thought to be separate realms – e.g. private or personal life, politics, the workplace, etc. – are more usefully thought of as interrelated (not just slightly interrelated but thoroughly, infinitely interrelated). From this perspective, equality isn’t ensured simply by having (ostensibly) the same voting rights and not being barred from office. Rather, inequality is a force that operates in all kinds of complex ways. I’d have thought this is a good reason for having a women’s conference. For example, you could explore/discuss how what seem innocent attitudes or views in practice turn out to be barriers to voting or being elected. It would then be possible to enlighten us all about the effects of our views, with the overall effect being that we are a stronger movement because everyone could then be more fully involved (of course, there are lots of (better) reasons for having a women’s conference – I’m just using one example to try and make one point).

      Rather than being straightforward, like most things in life, it seems to me to be a very complex area (and so I might be wrong about some or all of this!). Does that help?

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        Yes it does John. It helps a lot. Thank you for putting my mind at rest. It confirms, no more than confirmation, it reinforces all my original preconceptions.
        I cant help you John, your head is, I am afraid, just too far up your arse. I have encountered pseudo intellectual left wing politics like yours before John. You prefer dialectical materialism to discusion. You dont need to learn because you already know.
        You look at an issue like equality as complex not because it is (it is’nt, exhibit one: The Conservative Party) but because you have to. Why do you need to make it complex? because you are wrong but you can never admit that, not in public, and especially not to yourself. To learn from others is not a concept left wing intellectuals understand.
        So thanks John, you helped me but I am sorry I cannot reciprocate.

        1. John Walsh says:

          Sorry Richard – I’m willing to discuss politics with anyone no matter how unpalatable their views are, but with your last comment you’ve descended into troll territory. Goodbye.

          1. Richard MacKinnon says:

            Its a metaphor John, obviously too extreme for your delicate sensibilities. I am trying to show how far you are prepared contort yourself to avoid the basic point I am trying to put to you.
            Fair enough. don’t listen.

  5. Bazza says:

    Slightly hesitant commenting as a male but as someone who believes in equality do so in support of Maria’s points.
    But some argue all of Labour’s reforms on women have generally benefitted middle class women and from the vote of no confidence it could be argued often safe and middle of the road women.
    I want to be supporting socialist working class and progressive middle class women but do the working class socialist women have £10k to promote themselves (legal internal maximum) as Parliamentary candidates?
    I would like Labour to have an alternative gender rule for Leader/Deputy so if the Leader is male the Deputy is female and vice-versa.
    But then again I want of 6 on a Parliamentary shortlist at least 2 to be working class (occupation parent/s), at least 2 to bè female and at least 1 to be BME/LGBT/Disabled.
    I have always been unsure about all women shortlists but we could have a rule that every Labour Constituency is represented by both one male and one female rep that is one as the MP and the other as the elected Lord’s Rep (or we could call the elected second chamber the Senate).
    You could have a rule that whoever comes top in a selection is the Parliamentary candidate and the highest of the opposite sex in terms of votes is elected as the Senate Rep.
    So if Labour had 300 MPs and 300 Senate Reps 300 would be male and 300 female and each in their own way would serve the Party and Public.
    So yes 50/50 male/female MPs/Senate Reps, 50/50 male female cabinet/show cabinet members, 50/50 male/female senior cabinet posts but fundamentally more Jeremy Corbyn’s and Rosa Luxenburg’s!
    This is all a work in progress but I support Maria’s ideas and just offer food for thought!

    1. Paul Dias says:

      Very decent suggestions, IMO.

  6. Lizzie Spring says:

    Oh look, a string of comments mansplaining gender equality. Sur-prise!

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      Hi Lizzie, do you think separate women’s committees and other similarly gender-separate organisational structures are beneficial?

  7. Peter Rowlands says:

    There is little that I can see is objectionable per se in this proposal, but I do object strongly to the stupid and childish comments from Richard MacKinnon. Can the editor(s) please remove material such as this.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Fight your own battles, tell me why you think I am stupid and childish.

  8. Karl Stewart says:

    I 100 per cent agree with Bazza’s suggestion that there needs to be a rule that the leader and deputy leader need to be a different gender.

    But I’m not convinced that, in general, as to whether separate women’s organisations, committees, conferences etc, actually advance the cause of equality.

    Is there a danger, for example, that a separatist approach could mean that, for example, a new female activist could be directed away from mainstream political activity and into separate activity instead?

  9. Barry Hearth says:

    I’ve been very hesitant in joining this debate, as a male.
    I can remember my G’mother fighting for her rights and later my mother doing the same e.g.; battling against building societies who refused to lend her a mortgage, but she battled on and eventually won the day.
    So from that background, and as a husband who’s wife is convinced that all women shortlists do very little for ACTUAL equality, I like Bazza am not convinced that all women short lists are the best way forward.
    So what is the best way? I wish I knew the answer to that, but for me it has to be recognising that women think in a different way to men and behave accordingly. Stats have proved over the years that the female performs better at school than the male, but somehow we males assiduously ignore that fact after education and see men as the “top dogs”. That then colours everything we men do, as an instance I well remember a male member of an interview panel asking a female applicant HOW she would get to work if her car broke down. As the chairMAN I asked why he’d asked that question, he said it’s well known that women don’t understand motor mechanics, and then was amazed when I asked that question of the remaining candidates, all males.
    For me we have to find that middle line where we recognise and accept that where a man can, perhaps, lift a greater weight than a woman, the man ,perhaps, cannot do more than one thing at a time. I guess I’m saying that the female has certain attributes and the male has some different ones, but together we are better and stronger than working alone.
    So Bazza I’m for giving your way a go.

  10. Eleanor Firman says:

    Great article , thank you Maria Exall. I rather suspected the current womens’ conference to be as described, so I have avoided it. But if there’s a possibility of that changing then I’d certainly get involved. Cheers!

  11. Lucas says:

    You can base your leadership decisions on gynecology. You can parachute all your reps. You can have your ‘reformed’ conferences. You can patronize and insult every working class male in the country. But you can sure as hell count on them to not bestow their vote upon you.

    The brilliant minds of the labour movement agree: the answer to prejudice and supremacy is yet more prejudice and supremacy.

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