In closing her Conference speech, Harriet Harman paid tribute to the vitality of Labour women, whom she labelled “radical, controversial and … unstoppable.” At conference, those qualities were to the fore, as women organised and took part in a series of events which marked a resurgence of the women’s movement within the Labour Party. The Women’s Summit was the biggest gathering of leading Labour women and Labour activists for more than half a decade. More than 700 women attended, and many others had to be turned away at the doors for lack of space. Women were vocal, they were out in force – and they were angry. Angry at the absence of women from Labour’s general election profile; angry that change does not seem to come fast enough; and angry, most of all, at the disproportionate gender effect of the coalition cuts.
The challenge for us now is to harness the resurgence of interest among women within the party, giving women of all ages and experiences the tools (and the confidence) to play an active role both in policy and within our internal structures. The Lead for Women campaign has highlighted that hunger, as did the fringe events organised by the Fawcett Society and the Fabian Women’s Network.
The Labour Women’s Network has a crucial role to play in carrying the momentum forward. LWN membership has soared over the past few months, as women seek avenues to turn their anger into activism. Through mentoring and training, LWN helps meet the need for formal support mechanisms for women within the party political structure. It is a need that so many politicians discuss but which are often sidelined by policies which seem more urgent.
Yet more needs to be done. Over the coming months, LWN wants to expand its membership both among women already in council or parliamentary office and among women across the party. Our mentoring and training programmes continue, and they need broad support to be effective. We know that Labour women are also keen to consider new ways of taking common causes forward. Ideas that arose during the leadership campaign and at Conference include an online forum for Labour women to share experiences; a fully funded annual women’s conference with policy-making powers (which Ed Miliband expressly supported during the hustings); and training for women at all stages, not just for those seeking parliamentary office.
One top priority must be to create a database of women speakers who are available as panellists at political events – too often, conference panels are all-male affairs and this needs to change. LWN will be discussing these and other suggestions over the coming weeks, to see how best we can help to put them into action. If you want to know more, why not join us?
My sense from Conference is that a quiet but important shift is taking place among women within the party. The coalition’s casual attitude to cuts that impact on women has demonstrated what many of us knew already: only through pushing for structural changes at a fundamental level can we hope for lasting benefits. The Labour Party is the means to achieve that aim. The need for such change has never been more urgent. We need to use the momentum of Conference as a springboard for action. To give Harriet the final word – “Let’s get on with it.”