On Friday 22nd July, I joined in the Zoom meeting organised by WEP central office designed to answer members' questions about the consultation process that is now at Stage 2, following the initial scoping exercise.
The meeting had quickly ‘sold out’ as WEP had not expanded the normal Zoom limit of 100.
There was a considerable preamble from the chair about how the debate was to be respectful and considerate, the ‘ground rules’ and the format. Several members, including three of our caucus, had submitted questions prior to the meeting and these were worked through initially, although there wasn’t time to cover them all in the allotted hour.
There was also an abundance of heartfelt apologies in an introduction from the party leader, Mandu Reid for the (2 year!) delay in getting this process under way and for ‘any mistrust’ that has caused. She spoke about creating an environment where ‘no one is silenced or marginalised' and providing an ‘opportunity for all of us to listen and to learn from each other and move towards each other and towards consensus rather than away from each other and create further discord and alienation’. She said, ‘our currency will be empathy, compassion and understanding’.
The downlow is this. WEP policy committee, steering committee and staff members as a scoping group have worked together in ‘stage one’ and decided upon a citizens’ assembly format for the consultation, as was successfully used in the Irish abortion debate. Several of the people involved were present and spoke in the meeting. They explained this model was chosen as it gives both ‘sides’ the ability to make their points and be heard in a non-judgemental framework that allows for debate and formation of consensus.
They were advised by people with experience in citizens’ assemblies, research and the law and a question was arrived upon. Namely (my wording from my notes):
In the context of the special debate around the motion put forward in 2018, what changes, if any, will need to be made to WEP policies?
So, there won’t be single, referendum-style question. Rather a request to investigate the issues and relate them to policy and make suggestions about how policy might need to be shaped.
This whole process will be run by an independent organisation – apparently it has gone out to tender now. Some have wondered why a political party is not able to fact find and have informed debate themselves BUT perhaps this will mean that we can have confidence that a range of viewpoints will be heard. I choose to remain hopeful.
Here’s the process now that stage one has been completed:
1. Selection of organisation to carry out the consultation process
2. Selection of interested members and professionals with relevant legal and academic experience to an advisory group who will then select witnesses and advise the assembly.
It is likely there will be an open call for witnesses according to current plans, but the successful bidder for the job of running the consultation may have a differing strategy.
3. Select members to the assembly. This will be based on demographics that were listed during the meeting as ‘being representative of the party’, so WEP will be surveying all members asking their ‘sex, gender*, age, socio-economic status, disability, sexuality, interest in and knowledge of the topic’.
(*Yes, we noticed it too. We have written to them about this – see below)
4. The assembly will be held over several 90-minute Zoom sessions where witnesses will speak at the outset with deliberation to follow. Assembly members will be able to ask the advisory group for more information about any issues raised.
5. Assembly will feedback responses before Conference to the Policy Committee who will work with a social researcher to then design a consultation on any proposed policy amendments which will go out to the whole, wider membership.
6. Feedback will be given at Conference. The consultation will be held after that. Presumably, that is stage 3.
WEP have promised more information on the website ASAP. In the meantime, we have written this letter:
You can see earlier communications and the 2018 motion in my previous blog post - Consultation Begins.
We’ll post the response when we receive it.
It was clear that WEP really want this consultation to happen. It was also clear that, whilst there was a lot of talk about justifiable concerns and acknowledgement of how tolling this could be on DV survivors, there is also a lot of what I perceived to be general acceptance that we should be doing more to ensure the GRA is amended. So I look forward to seeing this debate unfold.
Here are some key comments from the people steering this process. Make of them what you will.
We are here for ‘bigger equality for everybody’ (sic) … it’s ‘not a zero-sum game’ … there should be ‘no policy that marginalises anybody’... we should ‘always represent the furthest in our community’, one person's gain is not another's loss as is 'portrayed in the media'.
And I agree. If this truly is the Women’s Equality Party, then every woman who ever needed a shelter, a female doctor, a safe and fair sport, or even a spell in custody can be assured that members of this party are using what privilege and influence they have to make sure that continues to be their right. We stand with you.