For the Labour party to be the best it can be and make an offer to the British people that reflects the concerns and ambitions of the country, it is vital to harness the skills, experiences and talents of all its members and supporters, including those groups that currently find it hard to participate. The Fabian Society’s More to do: Unequal Experiences of Labour Party Membership report finds that women tend to have a very different experience of being in the Labour party from men. This needs to change.
The report highlights the issues faced by various disadvantaged groups and it is important to note that women are likely to be represented in the other groups featured in the report: disabled women, Muslim and Jewish women, women under-35, LGBT women and minority ethnic women. Labour Women’s Network (LWN) has been working to support the engagement of women in positions of leadership within the party for over 30 years and we know that there is still much, much more to do to. That is why we continue to argue for changes to our party’s structures, culture and procedures.
More women than men do not find the party friendly and welcoming. As the report shows, factionalism is off-putting, particularly to women. It not only prevents people working together across the party but is also associated with hostility, bullying and a decrease in participation. The report suggests that by avoiding intense factionalism more people, including women, are more likely to feel able to participate.
Labour Women’s Network has long been committed to working with women from “every shade of red”. This avoids the kind of factionalism sometimes found in other parts of the party and ensures we are able to support all women across the broad spectrum of Labour members. Whilst there will always be levels of political difference in the party, more needs to be done to limit the negative impact of factionalism. The party must look at offering training and guidance to CLP officers to help tackle the problem and deal with uncomradely behaviour.
Women members are far less likely than men to find meetings enjoyable to attend. Being active in the party is something we ask people to do voluntarily and in their own time. That many women do not enjoy attending meetings, that more than a third of women do not think people are treated fairly in the party and that almost half of women think people do not progress based on merit is likely to be linked to levels of participation. The report recognises the changes in meetings during the pandemic. A majority support permanent hybrid meetings with far fewer women than men wanting to return to all face-to-face meetings. LWN calls on the party to take note – and as the social media hashtags puts it #KeepTheGoodStuff. This includes hybrid meetings, digital and remote access to events and party democracy and more accessible selection procedures.
Creating spaces that women feel comfortable to be in is crucial. This includes social media spaces which the report identifies as putting people off participating before they have ever attended a meeting. Good practice should be shared in order to develop more welcoming spaces in the party. Constituency Labour party chairs should be offered training in how to chair meetings inclusively to make meetings much more enjoyable for all and practical guidance for CLP officers on managing social media spaces would also be welcome.
For women to feel comfortable, we must also feel safe. Too often victims of sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated have been let down by party processes. We still do not have a fully independent complaints process for sexual harassment and abuse and without that women cannot feel safe in our party.
When it comes to standing for election women are more likely than men to feel that they come under unwelcome scrutiny of their private life and of their appearance. More than a quarter of women said they experienced disadvantage in parliamentary selections and more than 10 per cent in local election selections. With All Women Shortlists likely to be off the table until a future Labour government can amend the positive action legislation for sustainable use, some of 25 years of progress which led us to 51 per cent women in the PLP could be wiped out n – could be wiped out at the next general election. LWN’s campaign #Selections4ThisMillennium recognises that Labour’s parliamentary selections do not work for women. Long selection timetables, face-to-face meetings only and limited access to postal voting mean that women find it difficult not only to stand for selection but to take part in our party democracy and vote in selections too. LWN is calling for a four-week selection timetable, hybrid meetings and much easier access to postal voting. We believe this will support women and many other groups to both stand and vote in parliamentary selections and ultimately strengthen our party democracy.
LWN is run by women for women. We are able to create spaces women where women feel comfortable and to promote sisterhood because we ensure that women are at the heart of all our planning, leadership and delivery. Women must also be at the heart of other solidarity campaigns ensuring disabled, BAME, LGBT and young women are represented. LWN will continue to work to improve our party structures and processes and to prepare women to lead in our party and the country. The Labour party can only improve the experience of women within it if women are involved in developing, delivering and leading our party events, meetings and democracy. In this respect, and in changing the structures and democracy of our party to ensure women have an equal and positive experience, there is indeed much more to do.