Where were the women at Young Labour Conference?

There have been a number of blog posts in the past week about Young Labour Conference and I was wary of saturating the debate, but I feel strongly that there is still one issue that has not yet been addressed. As far as I am aware, all follow-up accounts of the conference have come from men. This is largely reflective of the conference itself, where young women were in a minority, both in attendance and during debate.

I found the gender imbalance a real concern, and I believe it calls for Young Labour to consider how best we work as a united group of members to serve, represent and promote equalities. I believe that first we must recognise where the problems lie, and I have tried to highlight some of them:

  • The agenda itself was male-dominated. Our timetabled keynote speeches came from politicians named Tom, Joe, John and Ed. I understand that there were women speakers who cancelled at short notice but I am sure there would have been others more than happy to have filled their spaces. Sunday’s first policy debate was Chaired by two men from the Young Labour committee and while I can’t speak for other workshops, the session I attended on Homelessness was also Chaired by two men.
  • During the dispute on the processes of policy-making, I don’t recall a single woman taking to the stage to express opinion either way. In fact, very few women spoke at all at conference. Many have been quick to accuse certain groupings of being male dominated, but the truth is we are all guilty of not challenging the under-representation of women in our movement; from the fringe groups to the PLP.
  • The timetabling of caucuses was not ideal. Pushing liberations in to lunch hours does not show a sufficient appreciation of them as a priority in Young Labour, rather as an add-on that can be chatted about over sandwiches. In the instance of the women’s caucus, discussion over-ran by a few minutes (because we did we have a lot to complain about) and apparently when sisters returned to conference hall they found that the policy debate had commenced without them. I can only assume that this was due to the fact that, since so few of us in the hall self-defined, the remaining members simply hadn’t noticed our absence.
  • As well as the lack of debate from young women, the voices of our wider equalities were overlooked. The policy-making process was so that Conference broke out into workshops with subject areas Education; Prosperity and Work; Sustainable Communities and Crime, Justice and Citizenship. Sadly, equalities were not an area under which policy was discussed, and caucuses did not have the facility to submit ideas to the manifesto specific to them.
  • Topics for the policy debate were chosen in workshops the day before, which meant members had a limited time to consider issues and prepare speeches. This format caters for very confident speakers – most often those who are regular contributors and, unfortunately, most often men.

How we better represent equalities at national events is something the Young Labour national committee and liberation officers need to urgently consider. There are a few things that I believe may help:

  • A gender quota could be adopted for future conferences – bringing back the delegate system may help in establishing this, with CLPs required to send a woman in alternate years and affiliates sending a balanced delegation.
  • During women’s caucus, it was suggested that a more formal method of policy-making would be favourable and I think there is still room for this case to be made. I would have felt personally more able to contribute to the debate had topics been submitted and circulated further in advance. Adopting a motions and amendments format, as we have in Labour Students, would not only give Young Labour the opportunity to make detailed policy with specific commitments but would give members the chance to write and practice speeches prior to conference, and to research issues they may not be familiar with.
  • Caucuses should be timetabled separate to any lunch or access breaks so that all delegates are aware that they are happening – this will reinforce their importance to those who do not necessarily define. If this means cutting back on the number of keynote speakers or extending conference hours, then so be it.
  • Lunches should be a separate event where all delegates are given the opportunity to socialise. If women, BAME, LGBT and disabled members are not given the chance to interact with non-defining members in an informal setting it makes raising issues more difficult.
  • Each caucus could have the ability to make their own policy (although of course, as autonomous groups this is up to them to formally adopt). This was raised at Women’s, as was the idea that we run a separate priority campaign alongside the national one that is specific to young women’s issues.
  • At Labour Students’ Political Weekend last year, the national Secretary emailed all women requesting they invite another sister along. Methods such as these which encourage women to recruit women are a more affirmative way of strengthening our numbers without risking anyone feeling patronised at being ‘selected’ by men to fill up quotas.

This year is the first that Young Labour has even had the opportunity to make policy and the progress made should be celebrated. But improvements are necessary and I hope the issue of representation is addressed. I look forward to future conferences where debate is more accessible, democratic and engages a wider demographic of our membership.

by Shelly Asquith