WEP Conference 2020 … #NoDebate
(A long read)
The WEP Sex-Based Rights Caucus first formed to join the other political party groups who had published Women’s Declarations, in protest against the continued erosion of the rights of women as a sex class in law and public life. SNP were first off the mark, quickly followed by Labour Women. At this point, we did not have Party Conference in our sights.
We were merely responding to the incoming veritable tsunami of news reports and personal testimony showing sex-based rights being misunderstood, appallingly misconstrued, and tragically misapplied.
We knew from our, let’s say, enlightening experiences at WEP Conference 2018 that there was a motion to support changes to the Gender Recognition Act to allow self-ID. After considerable debate that wasn’t always pretty, and an intervention from then Party Leader Sophie Walker, it was referred back. (Referring back puts a motion on hold when members feel it needs further debate.)
Of course, during this process many were called transphobic. It is de rigueur in this discussion now, right? Even in a feminist party.
We knew that, following on from this, there would be a members’ consultation on whether to support the motion and adopt it into policy.
Here’s what the party website says about that:
‘Why are we doing a consultation?
At our last party conference in 2018, members debated a motion and amendment to the motion, on changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, and referred this back to the Policy Committee for further clarification. To help us better understand what all members think and feel about this and how it might impact our other policies we have developed a consultation. The aims of the consultation process are to ensure all members are heard, give everyone the time and opportunity to listen and learn, and help to build consensus rather than division.’
Note how it might impact our other policies part because, as it turns out, that is what the assembly part of this process - an idea of using a People’s Assembly format to find consensus, as used in the Irish abortion rights debate - has entirely been about. Never fear, more on this and what we have learnt about how the assembly was premised and conducted will come from the caucus soon.
You will have seen from our website and social media channels that we got fed up of waiting for the Party to say or do anything about the aforementioned tsunami, and formed a caucus of members to try to show Central Office and Party Leadership that, as well as over 1000 signatories to the declaration, there was a large body of committed party members who wanted to be heard and to see action from the Party about the terrible things that were - and are - happening to women.
JK Rowling made an incredible and compassionate stand for women’s rights, and was horrendously vilified, targeted and threatened (#RIPJKRowling). The Women’s Equality Party said nothing, and used internal communications to reprimand errant branch officers who wanted to share articles about this on social media. They said we couldn’t condemn the harassment and threats of rape and violence because it might pre-empt the outcome of the assembly if they showed support, or showed it by implication, through local branches.
So much for #EVAWG.
Then there is Rosie Duffield MP. She is pictured here with Mandu Reid, Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer. Our party brilliantly showed how things can work when women come together across party lines and canvassed for her successful re-election. Because, as Sandi Toksvig is quoted in the New Statesman (from which this image is taken) as saying,
“The things she stands for are the very things we want to see represented in parliament,”
And yet, just like JK, she has endured incredible amounts of vile, misogynistic abuse for liking a tweet that simply states women have cervixes. Where has our party’s political good will towards her gone? The silence is deafening.
There have been so many times when we’ve thought surely they’ll respond to THIS.
This is the context for our caucus, and this is the cause of our frustration and exasperation.
This is why we have been so invested in trying to ensure that the consultation happens and – importantly - after all of this, is worthwhile.
We have offered our support to the Party in setting up the Members’ Assembly that is apparently part of the promised consultation, and even offered to lend practical support and input. Offers that were ignored. So, we rallied members to engage with the process, we applied to sit in the assembly and promote it. We contacted amazing women (including but not limited to; academics, women’s service providers, statisticians, professors, doctors, victim-survivors, activists) who we knew could make incredible contributions to this process and said please – please - if you’re asked to be part of this assembly will you make the time? (They did.) It’s so important to us. This Party still matters to us. We do think it’s relevant.
Back to Conference 2020.
We had submitted a motion, entitled, Upholding the Equality Act. It simply asked our Party to call for Government to clarify existing EA2010 Single-Sex Exceptions (SSEs) in order to bring to an end the current situation of women losing out on their rights to women-only spaces and sex-specific services.
It spelled out that this is happening because the SSE’s are widely misrepresented, sometimes deliberately, and service providers and other organisations are utterly confused about when, or if it’s OK to be ‘single-sex’, and what single-sex actually means.
Because it is OK. More than OK in fact, it’s sometimes very necessary.
This isn’t a debate, despite the fact it is often presented as such. The law exists in reflection of this widely accepted reality.
The motion was refused, rejected. Not allowed to be presented to Conference at all.
The reason given was that ...
‘…the subject matter of your proposal was debated during our 2018 Conference and referred back to the Policy Committee. You will be aware that since that time the Policy Committee have been designing and implementing a Membership Consultation on the subject and as such, it was felt that any pre-determination of the outcome of this Consultation was to be avoided. Whilst your proposed motion can be distinguished from the 2018 motion, any ensuing debate would clearly tackle the same questions that the Consultation is designed to address.’
In summary, a discussion about the rights of women under the Equality Act might also take place in a separate conversation about self-ID and so we cannot talk about the rights and needs of women here too. In the Women’s Equality Party Conference.
Let that sink in.
Let’s just say, we disagree.
Other, brilliant discussions about the rights of women at Conference were OK, thankfully. There were insightful and powerful contributions from feminist speakers such as Kate Raworth talking about feminist economics and women’s unpaid work. There was frank debate about women in the criminal justice system and the merits of prison abolition. There was staggering testimony from women about racism in maternity services- and there - right there – was the beating heart of the Party, and why we all need it so much. Raw testimony that filled your throat and stomach with sadness, sympathy and consolation and righteous indignation about the state of being a woman in 2020.
We were informed there was an opportunity to challenge the rejection of our motion during party business. We rallied together, completed the necessary forms, wrote speeches and waited to be called. The format was that we had five minutes to present our argument and then a member of either the Steering or Policy Committee would speak for the same amount of time.
We spoke. We restated that our motion was not about GRA 2004, was not about the 2018 self-ID motion, and that we didn’t want to talk about the legislation the Assembly talked about, we wanted to talk about EXISTING laws and why they’re not working as they were intended.
And we pointed out that it is a big problem for women, right now.
Over to the Steering Committee representative. They didn’t speak about our motion, they spoke about the consultation and how they had designed it to enable everyone to be able to speak safely … zoned out here, to be honest. Then they stated unequivocally, from their Steering Committee platform, that there was a crossover between the motions (back in the room … THERE ISN’T!!!). The WEP Steering Committee said #nodebate.
Unbeknownst to us, at the same time a member of both WEP Executive Committee and Steering Committee was posting in the discussion,
‘Of course we support the Equality act. This motion was rejected specifically because it is a smokescreen to disrupt the consultation.
VOTE NO. VOTE AGAINST IT.’
So, there we have it. WEP committee members think that members asking for Equality Act legislation to be better explained - legislation that forms the basis of women’s rights and protections in this country - is an act of sabotage to its other activities.
And therefore one wonders if discussing improving the lives of trans people - as the GRA motion was framed – prevents discussion of women’s existing rights in law, how will we function as a Party?
It’s been two years since the members' consultation was promised and, as a member, I am still yet to be consulted. How does the Party expect to achieve anything, get anything at all done, if we can’t talk about the bedrock of women’s rights?
If anyone is ‘sabotaging’ Party business, is it really us?
How does a group of people who think an act of law should be amended because they believe it will improve the lives of trans people, hold such power that they can silence and stymie all other debate and discussion that touches, even slightly, on separate but potentially impacted legislation (protecting that group and women) for years?
Based on a motion that was never even voted in by members.
And about an Act that the government has said it won’t change.
Women and girls can not wait to discuss our rights. Our rights are not on hold, and our rights can not be vetoed.
And yes, our motion was voted out and so never got debated. The very people that form the party did not get to debate it. What a shining victory for WEP.
Let’s be clear that if, after all this, party members do indeed decide that self-ID (which they still haven't defined) should be embedded in WEP policies, and that anyone who says they are a woman should be accepted as such in all things, at all times, the Equality Act will still exist. Sex will still be a Protected Characteristic. Single Sex Exemptions that allow even people with a GRC to be excluded from a space or service in order to serve a legitimate purpose – such as supporting traumatised women – will still exist.
Those single-sex exceptions though will, of course, become impossible to apply in reality because nobody will be able to identify anybody as anything other than what they say they are - because availing yourself of a birth certificate saying you’re the opposite sex will have become a simple process.
But that will be for other women’s organisations to sort out, because WE are not allowed to even seek to clarify and understand the existing law, let alone go on to discuss what could happen to that law if we travel down the road proposed by some enthusiastic ‘trans-ally’ members. And let’s be clear here, WE are trans allies. All of us. I have not met a transphobic person in this caucus yet. And I don’t expect to.
What the Party seems incapable, thus far, of doing is accepting that it is possible to be pro-women’s rights AND a good ally to other, marginalised and oppressed groups. That the phrase ‘intersectional’, as coined by the wonderful Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, refers to the legal concept that people are and should be recognised as experiencing discrimination due to more than one, single characteristic or factor. It does not represent some kind of Oppression Olympics that we must take part in.
Her 1989 paper Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex laid bare the conceptual limitations of the law’s then narrow view that only one cause of discrimination could be considered at a time. That a Black woman should not be considered as being discriminated against because of her race or her sex alone but because she is Black and a woman. We know this, we understand this, we hold it close to our hearts.
We fight for the recognition of these intersecting factors and the preservation of laws that recognise the basis of the oppression of half the world’s population. Our sex.
Yet, I don’t think it is paranoia that made us feel that the word intersectional was being used, alongside inclusive, at Conference and on wider social media to mean – rather ironically - not for you. You get the feeling that the newly formed LGBTQI+ (don’t forget to apologise if you forget the last two letters when speaking at Conference) Caucus don’t want our kind of lesbian feminists. And a small but vocal minority within the BAME Caucus are perhaps a bit too inclusive to include all Black feminists. Allison Bailey is probably a bit much for them. We’d love to be wrong.
And the Deputy Leader who formed the Disability Caucus definitely doesn’t really think she can represent all WEP members, as she claimed in the presentation about the existence of non-elected Deputies. After all, she blocked us on Twitter.
There was some hope though. In the Steering Committee hustings, candidates were asked about their views on self-ID. They were, on the whole, very considered. They showed understanding that we must preserve sex-based rights and that it is our sex that means we’re the ones who get paid less and raped, abused and murdered in the main.
The two existing Steering Committee members who were standing for re-election (including the one who said our motion about women’s rights was a smokescreen) talked instead about recognising their privilege and both seemed to become a bit teary eyed at this point.
The candidate who talked about having experienced domestic abuse and sexual violence did not cry. Just an observation.
Coming out of Conference, we have to now consider how we can move forward.
The Caucus have made a statement you can read in the prior blog post and also here.
We don’t want to abandon this Party because we ARE this Party, but it has been made clear that the existing apparatchiks do not believe we should be allowed to speak.
Which is a shame because I think we could learn from each other.
But we are difficult women™, and we are not very good at being quiet.
So perhaps we won’t slink away, just yet. There is work to do.