The Womens Conference opened as an introduction to the main conference and was full of enthusiastic women of all ages and with many new young members among them, high expectations and renewed hope reflected in the conversations and debate.
Kate Green MP and Shadow for Women and Equalities welcomed us and Yvette Cooper paid tribute to Harriet Harman, reminding us what she has done for women’s equality, how she reinstated Women’s Conference just 5 years ago to give us a distinct voice. It was accepted that, valuable though the Conference has been to date, the leadership recognised the added value and that from next year it will become a policy making body to feed into the Main Conference agenda.
Yvette said more women have become councillors, more have joined the party in the last month than the total number of women in the Tory party as a whole, and we have more women candidates than ever before. She spoke about how Harriet had thrown down the ladder for women and urged them to climb up.
Harriet herself quoted Sheryl Sandberg’s rallying cry, for women to ‘lean in, be ambitious, and plan how to get on’. However she argued that as women in the party we should be ‘leaning out’, reaching out to offer a helping hand to other women so that we can change the world together.
She suggested we could start by offering a better way of engaging more women to get active in the party; for example by changing the way and time branches meet to be more accessible to Mums putting their children to bed in the evenings, and for older people and the disabled who can’t get to meetings. Mumsnet made the simple and interesting suggestion of using skype meetings to reach them.
We know that the Government is attacking women, at home, in the workplace and in their families. Cuts to tax credits hits women twice as hard as men and childcare cost is a growing problem. Women will suffer disproportionately under Osbourne’s cuts to local and public services of 40% as we’ve seen in the proposed cuts applied to children centres in Oxfordshire.
By the end of this parliament the Tories will have taken £9.6billion more from people’s pockets through cuts to tax credits and child benefit, £7billion of which will come directly from women even though they earn less and own less than men. (That’s why my Conference blog argues that Austerity is sexist!)
The open Mic discussion on women and new politics became lively and many people spoke, raising issues of housing, childcare, women in business environment, equal pay, the media and all women short lists. Female genital mutilation was a major discussion point and calls for were made for legislation to stop such barbaric practices both here in this country and across the world, cultural considerations notwithstanding.
There was a clear message sent from this conference that we want the party to give hope to society at large and women in particular, and there was a reminder to all those who might be disappointed by the leadership result, that we maintain solidarity and remain united in the party in the face of attacks from the right wing media. Conference insisted that people in the PLP should not break ranks to undermine this great party.
After Lunch Breakout Sessions
Four breakout sessions comprised
• Women and New Politics
• Continuing the fight for equal pay
• End violence against women and girls
• Tackling the challenges faced by older women
I attended the last of these. Fiona McTaggart MP has set up an Older Womens Commission to map out the policy demands of older women who are balancing work, home, aging parents and supporting their children and grandchildren. There will be a campaign to make those policy changes happen called OWLs (Older Women’s Lobby) and Harriet responded saying ‘let’s have wise owls roosting in every CLP in every region’ (not sure of owls roost but you get the point).
The final conference session was taken up first by a speech from Kezia Dugdale, Leader of Scottish Labour Party. She said the key to Equality is having feminists in position of power not females in high office, and argued that it is Labour that transformed the lives of women across the country. Kezia said that it is no good saying women in power are inspirational in themselves as it’s not enough to transform the lives of young women in Scotland. Women face boundaries that men do not, no matter how hard they may work, and want the chance to break through the institutional discrimination they face. As things stand now, 1 in 4 women will continue to face a culture of low pay, low paid jobs, and low skilled work or be penalised by motherhood because of taking maternity leave.
Jeremy was greeted with a standing ovation and in his speech, he confirmed that both he and Tom Watson will be going to Scotland on a monthly basis to support Kezia in rebuilding Labour. He thanked everyone for the advice and support he had received especially from women in the party. He said that yes, he made mistakes but it was often women members who point these out and suggest new ways of doing things. He wanted to work with women, the party and NEC to improve the representation of women across the whole party. He emphasised his desire to unite the party and said clearly he would not respond to or make personal attacks on others. He (quite graciously) thanked Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall for their friendship during the leadership campaign, adding that 70% (74,500) of new members are women, while the average age of party members has dropped by 10years since the GE, a cause for celebration.
The leadership campaign promised hope and a call for a new type of politics as well as a distinct anti-austerity pledge (given the disproportionate impact of austerity on women in particular). 000s more women have joined in last few months and that energy and enthusiasm was seen at Womens Conference. Jeremy encouraged us to capture and develop it, suggesting that it’s the new ideas that women will bring which will be vital for our future. We must bring together both old and new labour supporters including those who have turned away from politics and who may never have voted. Finally, he challenged us to get to a million members and suggested that this should be achievable and a goal for us all.
Womens Conference Delegate 2015