‘Courage calls to courage everywhere…’ Millicent Fawcett.
‘In November 2018 the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, delivered a searing verdict on ‘austerity’ policies and their impact, stating that cuts and reforms to social security had been driven by a goal of radical social engineering and, “there is such a gender dimension to these welfare reforms that if you got a group of misogynists in a room and said how can we make this system work for men and not for women they would not have come up with too many ideas that are not already in place.”
‘Women, BAME and disabled women in particular have bourne the brunt of austerity, with severe cuts to public services, social security, the growth of insecure work and a spiralling housing crisis. This has placed women at greater risk of sexual harassment and violence – and our ability to enforce our rights has been drastically restricted.’
from ‘Suggested Motions for Labour Party Women’s Conference, 2019.
‘The poorest single parents have lost a quarter of their income under this Tory government.’ Margaret Greenwood MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, opening address.
It’s a daunting task carrying the weight of such powerful testimony from so many – but here goes… This is for every single woman who stood up and spoke truth to power at the Labour Women’s Conference in Telford last weekend, and for every union and CLP and every family and community that she represents. Everywoman was here in the hall. Calling for justice and change. So many of us are nearly on our knees, but together we are rising. Talk this up, sisters. Talk this up.
Telford is a man-made Industrial Revolution kind of a town. The kind of town that smelted metal and swallowed up men, women and children in the shadow of its furnaces – think Danny Boyle’s epic Olympic opening. This town was built on the labour of brothers and sisters fleeing rural poverty, their labour providing the building blocks for the railways and the factories that would come to re-define our green and pleasant land. Rights for these workers was a long, hard slog away. But it came. We are at a similar crossroads again. Tory austerity is turning back time, and once again it is women and children who bear the brunt and powerful men who reap the rewards. Enough.
We assemble in the main Telford International Conference Hall on Saturday morning. A rainbow nation of women. We find our CLP delegate places or our unions. Jayne Taylor, Chair of the WCAC (Women’s Conference Arrangement Committee) welcomes us all. Katrina Gilman PPC (prospective parliamentary candidate for Telford) gives us a huge welcome to her constituency and Margaret Greenwood MP, Shadow Sec of State for Work and Pensions paints us a picture of the deliberate destruction of our social fabric by the current Tory government. The mood in the hall is expectant and sombre. This is our first stand-alone policy making women’s conference for decades. This is our chance. Our members and trade union voices will be heard and listened to. This year for the first time Women’s Conference will send two motions to Annual Conference, Women’s Officers will be elected to every regional board. Women have arrived at the table and we have work to do.
Eight topics have been chosen for debate by Labour CLP’s and Labour Affiliates (mostly unions). The CLP’s country wide have chosen Rights for Migrant Women, Early Years Education and Childcare, Abortion Rights and Pensions. The Affiliates have gone with Social Care, Violence Against Women and Girls, Universal Credit and Employment Support and Women in the Workplace. Eight debates, eight overlapping and vital discussions to be had about urgent changes needed in women’s lives. As a first timer to conference I’m bowled over by the diversity and equality of opportunity to speak. The first session is chaired by Jasmin Daar. It’s a blistering run through the debate around Women in the Workplace. We hear a woman from the Musician’s Union, and a single mother of three, discuss trying to juggle childcare with the demands of a freelance musical career. To meet bills and rent she needs to take every job that she gets offered, last minute, often by text. She’ll be whisked off the orchestra pit of the Lion King from her family commitments at a moments notice, she’s juggling teaching commitments, childcare, orchestral work, session work and with no employment rights she is stretched to the limit, ‘Support this motion,’ she says, ‘I move.’ And then come a steady stream of women, chosen by the Chair, from all around the room – delegates put their hands up, wave order papers and put scarves in their hair to attract attention. Those chosen then wait patiently by the main stage to take the podium and share their stories with the hall. It feels like a giant revival meeting – women are testifying and we are witnessing their lives, one after the other – zero hours contracts, the impossibility of accepting a job when hours change at a moments notice, extra hours – if not immediately taken – are lost forever. Women forced to take jobs that involve working all night, then going home to look after small children during the day. Exhaustion is etched on faces of many. Many are close to breaking. There are no rights. Maternity rights so vague that employers shed professional women like snake-skin. The room absorbs their stories. We hear them. We move this motion. Every woman in the hall raises their arms for the final vote. We move.
The next debate comes under the heading of Early Years – Education and Childcare. Here too we have an unfair, underfunded, unaccountable system that is failing our children. The present Tory provision depends very heavily on the private sector with unequal access, and relies on poorly paid and poorly trained staff. Delegate after delegate speaks about the destruction of vital early years provision in their area. Children’s centres are closing across the country. These centres are a lifeline for parents, carers and children. Centres of excellence are being shut down. A delegate from the Tyneside region spoke about how cuts to her gold standard state nursery have meant that most staff have been cut and services reduced to a bare minimum of part time provision. In the WCAC report on this motion it is noted, ‘A recent survey by the Local Government Association reveals that almost two thirds (61%) of councils fear that maintained nurseries in their area will close unless future funding is protected. More than half of them (52%) said losing funding would result in reduced support for children with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities), and the same number said it would mean reduced support for disadvantaged children… In 2017 Age UK research shows that 5 million (or 40% of) grandparents provide regular care for their grandchildren. Age UK and Grandparents Plus estimate childcare provided by grandparents is worth £7.3 billion annually.’ Clearly, the system is broken. This conference moves to put that right. A Labour government would provide vital early years provision, for all children, regardless of ability to pay. Motion carried by a sea of hands.
And then there is the Pension debate. These same women who are raising their grandchildren have been subjected to the biggest legalized robbery of all time. Woman after woman came to speak, one wearing sash bearing the figure ‘£48,000’ – the amount of pension that she had lost. Fifties women have been dealt the double whammy of stagnant wages and the sudden loss of a state pension at 60 that they had been promised. Many are having to rely on foodbanks, living hand to mouth, forced into work in care homes that they are physically not able to manage. Women are destitute. Many were on the point of tears. This testimony is hard to hear, but we are here. Listening hard. The WCAC notes, ‘Those who planned to retire at 60, but – without official notification – found they’ve had to wait another 6 years, have been truly ripped off… Changes in the name of ‘equality’, have had a brutal impact on women born in the 1950’s, who saw little equality in their working lives – they didn’t earn the same wage for the same job and many were denied access to workplace pensions and in many cases, now face the additional burden of caring for ageing relatives and or grandchildren.’ Labour will fix this. The courageous women speaking out here today will make sure of that. Motion carried. Unanimously.
And then we break. There are Fringe meetings and Breakout sessions to attend. Chrissie heads for the Women’s Officer meet up and I’m about to go find a sandwich, but as I leave the main hall I bump straight into the unmistakeable figure of Diane Abbot, striding purposefully towards me. I turn to see where she leads me. It turns out that the ‘Breakout – Underpaid and Undervalued Work’ session is to be chaired by her. For the next hour I hear insights into the world of women’s work – the gender pay gap, maternity rights, redundancy after pregnancy, the NDA’s (non-disclosure orders) that prevent women at work comparing their salaries to their male colleagues, discussion about universal income and how that would benefit all working women and mothers. We hear from The Women’s Maternity Alliance, a Unite Rep and a corporate lawyer, chaired by Diane. Women in the audience stand and share their stories. Each one is of inequality and struggle, irrespective of pay grade or class. This ought to shock me, instead I just marvel at how we’re not all out on the streets. Towards the end of the session the hall begins to fill again and there’s a party atmosphere. The Big Speakers are on their way…
There’s a flurry of activity by the doors and in walk Dawn Butler, Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party and Diane Abbot, Shadow Home Secretary. Dawn speaks first and has us all on our feet for a standing ovation to acknowledge Diane Abbot, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington since 1987 and the UK’s first black female MP. Dawn sweeps us all along in a collective wave of female solidarity, daring us to dream of a Labour government. She ends on a song, ‘Something Inside So Strong’, and we sing along with her. Jeremy eases into her slipstream. He’s a well briefed, eloquent speaker. His gift is to make each of us in the room feel seen and heard. And we allow ourselves to dream with him too. The reality of a Labour Government with such a man as leader is almost too much to hope for. We must all dare greatly. To do otherwise would be unthinkable.
The first motion of the afternoon calls for the ratification of the Instanbul Convention of 2012 which deals with Violence Against Women and Girls. Women who have been in violent and coercive relationships, women who work in refuges, a young woman who had grown up in a violent family; one after the other their testimonies spill out and are heard. The decimation of the refuge service in this country is a scandal. A woman from Devon talked about how few places remain and how vast the geographical area they were being asked to cover. Women and children escaping violence in the home are being turned away in their hundreds each week in the UK. Central funding for refuges is being diverted to cash- strapped Local Authorities who cannot meet the level of provision that is desperately needed. Two women a week are murdered by their partners each week in the UK. The human misery and suffering behind the statistics is unimaginable. This motion calls for RSE (Relationship and Sex Education) in schools. It calls on conference to ‘ensure that specialist services for survivors and children escaping domestic abuse, both those provided within refuges and within the community, are fully resourced across the country… and working with women’s groups to identify what specialist services women and children affected by domestic abuse should be entitled to, including long-term counselling… ensuring no more women’s refuges or support services are closed and no women or children turned away due to lack of funding.’ And finally this motion includes a pledge to grant paid leave to women fleeing domestic violence and making sure that no one experiencing violence in the home be disadvantaged in terms of their employment. Motion carried, without a moments hesitation. Of course. By the end of the session Chrissie and I are full to the brim of testimony. I have been moved to tears more times in one day than I care to count.
It’s 9.30am on Sunday morning and we’re back in our seats beside our South West sisters. First on the agenda today is the Social Care policy debate. It turns out that 80% of health and social care workers in the UK are women. Conference notes that, ‘Social care in England has been underfunded, de-professionalised and privatised, no longer providing a coherent, fair or adequate service for those in crisis or with longer term social needs or carers.’ The testimony of speaker after speaker leaves us in no doubt about this. We hear from the mother of a two year old who works nights, then returns home, exhausted to put in a full shift of childcare. We hear from care workers on zero hours contracts, paid £5 per hour and caring for the most vulnerable elderly patients, often providing end of life care. Labour will recognize care workers as trained professionals. They will ensure unpaid carers are supported and given adequate carers allowance. The ultimate aim will be to end privatisation and bring Social Care back into public ownership – where it clearly belongs. Motion carried. A sea of hands carry it. Not a single hand raised to oppose.
Next is the motion on Abortion Rights. It’s hard to imagine a more emotive subject for a room full of women to debate. Here conference notes, ‘The huge victory for women in the referendum in the Republic of Ireland to Repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution which effectively outlawed abortion in all cases.’ Women in Ireland died in order for this referendum to be won. In Northern Ireland a bizarre anomaly means that they are now the only women in the UK to have no access to abortion. It turns out that the DUP refuse to countenance the notion that women in Northern Ireland can have dominion over their own bodies. The Tory Government is complicit in this ‘legal and political deadlock’ as it depends on the DUP to prop it up. As the Chair chooses speakers from the floor a blonde woman moves onto the stage and is told to sit down. ‘I am here from Northern Ireland,’ she says, ‘and I will be heard…’ There are calls of support from the conference floor, we rise to our feet, we will hear this woman. She stays where she is, tells us that travelling in secret to the UK for abortions is not an option for a twelve year old girl who has been raped, or a woman trapped in domestic violence. Here is what conference believes, ‘Women have the right to choose how they control their own bodies and reproduction. Pregnancy termination must be a healthcare not a criminal matter.’ And this is the nub of the issue. Sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act mean that the signature of two doctors must be sought before a woman has safe access to abortion. Women who work in abortion clinics spoke of the difficulties this presents for women. This should not be a legal matter. It should be a choice that all women are free to exercise. The motion is carried unanimously.
And so to the Universal Credit and Employment Support motion. One that underpins so much of what we have been hearing throughout this weekend. Conference is ‘deeply concerned by increasingly entrenched inequality in the UK. Women are more likely to live in poverty, be in low paid and insecure work and the gender pay gap remains stubbornly high at 17%. This is underpinned by… forty years of neoliberalism, discrimination, the design of the benefits system, underinvestment in public services – particularly child and social care. All of this has been compounded by eight years of austerity, with 86% of the cuts falling upon women since 2010.’ Yes, it really is that stark. Conference notes continue, ‘Women, BAME and disabled women in particular, have borne the brunt of austerity, with severe cuts to public services, social security, the growth of insecure work and a spiralling housing crisis. Women under 25, especially mothers, have been particularly affected by the age-related welfare cap…’ Woman after woman takes the stand to testify to the absolute calculated cruelty of Universal Credit. Single mums are losing up to £2,000 a year as a result of migrating to this single payment. Delays to first payments are driving the exponential rise in the use of foodbanks. We demand an end to Universal Credit with its disgraceful ‘rape clause’, we demand an end to punitive sanctions, we demand and end to Work Capability Assessments, a return of Legal Aid. We demand a society that is fit for purpose. A woman tells conference that this Tory government have blood on their hands. No one disagrees. Motion moved. Unanimously.
And now to the final motion of the conference. A call for Rights for Migrant Women. Rights for Migrant Women are rights for all women. At the moment in the UK the NHS requires undocumented and destitute women to pay ‘up-front’ for ante natal and maternity care, making these women too afraid to seek the care that they need, putting the lives of these women and their unborn children at risk. Every year move than 1500 women who seek asylum in the UK are locked up. Conference notes, ‘there is no time limit on immigration detention – women can be locked up for days, weeks, even months and years. Detention is unnecessary and expensive – also very traumatic for the women who are detained, many of whom have already survived rape and torture.’ It is a matter of great shame that the UK treats vulnerable women in this way as part of Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’. Woman after woman speaks to conference to tell us their experiences. It is impossible not to be moved to tears at the courage and bravery of these women. They deserve our undivided support. A Corbyn-led Labour government pledges to deliver healthcare for all. No one turned away, no woman left unsupported during pregnancy, no child delivered in secret. Women experiencing violence will be properly cared for. Labour will end the detention of asylum-seeking women. Yarlswood will be closed on Day One of a Labour government. Motion carried, the last motion of this conference. The eighth motion of eight to be carried unanimously. The whole room erupts into loud cheers of support for the testimony of every woman who has spoken here, and for the chance to have come together with Labour women from around the UK and make our voices heard. We all file out to cast our votes for the two motions that will be carried forward to Annual Conference.
As Dawn Butler leads us in one final chorus, ‘The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become…’ and we sway together, raising our voices, raising our arms. We have a message for Theresa May and her Tory government, we have a message for every Labour MP who stands in the way of a Corbyn-led Socialist government and every member of the Tinge Tendency – we see you. The Labour Women see you. Change is coming. Make way, we are rising and together we are unstoppable. Something inside so strong…