Challenging convention – Labour party Women’s Conference 2019

This past weekend (February 23rd – 24th) I attended the Labour Party Women’s Conference 2019 in Telford, as delegate for South Cambridgeshire CLP, along with hundreds ofother delegates, affiliates and party members from all over the country.

Normally the warm up for the main Annual Conference, this year’s Women’s Conference was a stand-alone event for the first time in over two decades.

The conference opened with a welcome speech from Katrina Gilman, prospective parliamentary candidate for Telford. Margaret Greenwood (Shadow Secretary ofState forWork andPensions) discussed how the effects of austerity disproportionately impacts on women, minorities and poorer people and called on conference to fight for the future of our eroded social security system.

We also heard from Dawn Butler (Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities) who focused on rights for women in the workplace – the campaign spearheaded by the commitment to giving all workers a right to flexible working from day one.

The turbulence of Britain’s political climate in the past few weeks was not glossed over by our speakers.Party leader Jeremy Corbyn also spoke,imploring the nine MPs who quit the party recently to “do the decent thing” and call by-elections. “Over the last few years Labour’s membership has grown dramatically and set our party on a new course. I understand why that might be difficult for people”. He went on to say, “We are open for discussion and debate – that is the lifeblood of democratic politics and absolutely what we exist for.”

The conference has its own powers to vote to choose a motion to send to Annual Conference.The conference debated six motions in total, I will just cover a few here:

Policy debate – women in the workforce
Conference noted women are more likely than men to shoulder the majority of childcare, as well as care for older and sick relatives.Women in low paid and insecure employment (e.g. self-employed, retail, gig economy) feel unable to approach employer for flexible working so they can carry out this care, despite it being their right, for fear as being seen as a liability.

In addition to existing manifesto commitments, the motion also posited that others be added such as affordable childcare for freelancers.

Speakers invited to the lectern also highlight the often overlooked issue of disability work rights and the education which is seemingly needed around reasonable adjustments and the Access to Work programme.

There was a lot of support voiced for Universal Basic Income. This was not a part of the motion this time but maybe this is something to consider for next year.

Policy debate – Pensions
This motion calls on the next Labour government to revisit the issue of pension equality and support fair transitional arrangements for those affected by changes to state pension age.

Unsurprisingly there were many speakers from the WASPI movement. WASPI is a non-partisan organisation which agrees with the equalisation of the state pension age but does not agree with the unfair way the changes were implemented. These changes left many women born in the 1950’s with only one year to prepare for a later retirement age, rather than the original longer transition period.

We heard many personal and moving testimonies from women that,despite paying full NI contributions, are left with shortfalls of tens of thousands of pounds due to this callous money-saving acceleration of policy. With many women struggling to find employment to fill the gap, we heard of women who had slept in their cars, survived on foodbanks and left some feeling suicidal.

I later spoke to a representative from the WASPI stand to try to clarify Labour’s position. Currently the party, according to the manifesto, offers “recognition for the injustice” and supports “compensation for their losses”. The representative discussed with me that this compensation and transitional protection is currently being explored by the party and “not yet quantified”.

Policy debate – social care
Social care was a meaty motion, aiming to address both social care staff, as well as family carers (more often women than men). The motion called for numerous improvements including investment, recognition and increased support (including financial) for unpaid family carers, ethical charters, public ownership and a radical review of the direct payments system.

There were strong feelings of support from the conference floor on this one, summarised by the delegate who stated that in social care, market values had penetrated where they did not belong.

Many speakers drew attention to a green paper on adult social care from the government, which has been repeatedly delayed since 2017. The paper includes plans for social care funding and restructuring and the government were accused by conference speakers of “sweeping it under the rug”.

Despite the vocal support for the above motions, the two that were voted to be debated at Annual Conference were “Rights for Migrant Women” (women who are not settled in the UK e.g. asylum seekerswho must pay inflated costs for maternity care, putting many at risk) and “Universal Credit & Employment”(a call to scrap the poorly implemented welfare benefits, and ideas to rectify it).

Overall the discussion and debate which Corbyn called for at the beginning of the conference feels well and alive, and with plenty of encouragement foreach speaker very far from being a hostile environment. I have come away with plenty to think about and act upon for myself, as well as for South Cambridgeshire CLP.As one of the speaking delegates said, “The longer we have this Conservative government the more we will need to fix”.

by Karin Hilpert (Women’s Officer)

1 - Dawn Butler addressing the conference
1 - Dawn Butler addressing the conference
2 - Top quality flag action
2 - Top quality flag action
3 - not my best #angryface
3 - not my best #angryface
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