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Putting the reality of women’s and girls’ lives centre stage

As Labour Women’s Conference begins today, TRISH LAVELLE reflects that the gains we have made in the past will only last as long as we keep fighting for them

IN THE centenary year of the murder of the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg I can only speculate on what she would have made of the situation for working-class people and particularly women in today’s Tory Britain.

Certainly she would have understood why so many working-class people feel totally disenfranchised and removed from the politics of Westminster.

And without doubt she would have seen the dangers presented by the populism, nationalism and racism that have characterised the media debate around Brexit. 

However, I would also imagine that she would be heartened by the progress made by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. 

She would clearly see that the reawakening of a mass movement demanding a shift away from the neoliberal policies dominating the political landscape that have inflicted such great pain and suffering on our communities would present a very serious threat to the rich and powerful. 

Luxemburg would surely fully expect this emerging re-energised working-class movement to be viciously attacked and undermined at every turn.

It will be interesting to reflect on this as women from the Labour Party and from trade unions gather in Telford this weekend for the Labour Party Women’s Conference, which comes at the end of a week that has been both challenging and illuminating for the labour movement. 

Challenging because this unsurprising and long expected departure from the Labour Party has taken over the political headlines all week and illuminating because it took less than 24 hours for these former Labour MPs of the so-called “Independent Group” to throw in their lot with departing Tories who have voted consistently for war, austerity and privatisation. 

This is not “new politics.” This is more of the same nasty, greedy, cruel and anti-worker doctrine that we have seen before, this time with a new shiny logo, mysterious financial backers and a tendency to bizarre racist utterances.

The loss of a small number of female MPs, both Labour and Tories to the Independent Group will no doubt be a talking point in the bars and restaurants, but it’s encouraging to see that women coming together this weekend are going to spend the majority of their days focusing on an agenda that reflects the reality of the lives of women and girls in Britain. 

The conference will have a strong focus on austerity and its impact on women, with many motions calling for an end to universal credit and the sanctions regime with its disastrous and misogynistic consequences for the lives and the health of women, their families and communities. 

There will also be calls for a reversal in the cuts to local authority budgets which have disproportionately affected the vital services on which many women rely for childcare, refuges and specialist healthcare.

Time will be spent on debating the scandal of period poverty, which sees an increasing number of women and girls having to choose between spending money on food or sanitary products and delegates will call for free access to menstrual care for women and girls as a human right. 

There are a large number of motions on the agenda which seek to address the issue of fair representation for women in politics and indeed the Labour Party has made some great strides in improving the representation of women in its party structures. 

After the last election 45 per cent of Labour MPs were women with 50 per cent of the shadow cabinet being female. 

It is extremely encouraging to see progress being made in this area, but also welcome is the visible shift to many more trade unionists both male and female standing to become Labour Party candidates as a real boost for working-class representation. 

That trade unions are working so hard locally to get working-class candidates elected is a strong endorsement of the policies that Labour once again stands for — an end to austerity, a fair deal for workers, a strong and properly funded NHS, a national education service that is free at point of use, and nationalisation of our railways to name a few.

Earlier this week the BBC was roundly criticised for taking the editorial line that to provide advice for viewers on our legal abortion rights might be controversial. 

So Labour Party women who fully understand that our rights have to be fought for time and time again will be debating the issue of abortion rights, not just for the sake our sisters in Northern Ireland who are still denied the basic reproductive freedoms, but also to ensure that our existing rights in Britain are strengthened and protected for the generations to come. 

So it is pleasing to see such a progressive agenda for this conference. Some of our “mainstream” political journalists might find it odd that there are no motions calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go or for the overall direction that the party has taken under his leadership to radically change. 

This clearly demonstrates that the media froth this week fuelled by the cosy relations between the political lobby and a small number of disaffected MPs is false, manufactured and a real distraction.  

The Labour Party and the labour movement must put these distractions to the side and be clearly focused on the real issues affecting working-class people. 

And if this weekend tells us anything it tells us that there can be no complacency. The gains we have made in the past will only last as long as we keep fighting for them, and for women, still oppressed and discriminated against on the basis of their sex, the most important win of all can be a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government sooner rather than later.  

As Rosa Luxemburg said 100 years ago, “The modern workers’ struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight…”

Trish Lavelle is head of education, training and equality for the Communication Workers Union.


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