By Owain Llyr ap Gareth, Research and Campaigns Officer, Electoral Reform Society Wales
After entering the empty room an hour before the first of our two fringe meetings at the Welsh Labour conference – looking at the rows of empty seats, nursing a quickly stolen cup of coffee before steeling myself for another pass through the conference with leaflets – it came as something of a relief to come back from the last leafleting blitzkrieg to a meeting that is standing room only. The only problem now is pushing through the melee to get an angle for my photos.
The first of our fringes at was on Labour and pluralism, and whether the party who gained 39% of the vote was big enough to win again alone.
Richard Angell from the Labour think-tank Progress spoke about widespread fear in the party about debating “sacred cows”. He cited the example that if he was to question the role of some union leaders, he would be labelled “anti-union” as a means of stopping debate, rather than being allowed to voice legitimate – if controversial – concerns.
Lee Waters, who had worked on the cross-party ‘Yes for Wales’ referendum campaign, spoke of his enjoyment of working across party lines on issues of shared interest, and suggested that in order to appeal to the changing demographics and communities of Wales, Labour needed to be more open to other like-minded parties as well as ‘critical friends’ in civil society and in the community.
Huw Irranca-Davies MP agreed that Labour had to be open to views from communities – and also to groups less likely to be Labour supporters, such as farmers and West Wales, for whom Labour’s values were not dissimilar. He argued that Labour should fly the flag around which progressives should follow.
Ken Skates AM voiced his worry about the impact of globalisation and the retreat of the state on voters, and voiced concerns that voting no longer made a difference. He argued that there was a need to build a social democratic alternative to the current system – of which the bankers were a good example – and added that he thought compulsory voting was a viable way to get people to turnout rather than turn-off politics.
The discussion was lively, with much sad about the need for openness and for the Labour’s party culture to be accessible to those outside its formal membership; a view that sits well with the professed aim of “Refounding Labour”: to reach out to supporters.
In our second fringe, political culture was also a strong theme as in light of our new Counting Women IN campaign, we discussed how to get more women in public life. The members assembled reminded us that they had had to fight at party meetings to be able to say “Labour women make policy, not tea”. There was also a view that the party could – at times – be off-putting to young women, and that it was important to remember that members “came to change the world, not to write the minutes of the last meeting”. Many gave examples where women had been passed over or undermined by members of the party they gave so much of their lives to help.
The discussion followed excellent contributions by Paula Manley of the Women Making a Difference programme, which trains women from disadvantaged backgrounds to be community leaders. Her message was that change has to start at the grassroots level, in order to build confidence and experience for women to put themselves forward into politics.
Christine Chapman AM stated that it was vital that quotas continue to be used, as if not, the seats would as a rule go to men. Gender parity in the Welsh Assembly had made a huge difference to the way politics was conducted, and there was real fear that this progress could be lost in the next few years.
John Griffiths AM, describing himself as the ‘token man’, discussed how half the population could not be cut out of the conversation. He echoed Christine Chapman’s point on the role of women in the Assembly, and noted the importance of women’s contributions to sustainable policy making throughout the world; a fact by now acknowledged by the UN in policies such as conflict resolution, education, AIDS and development.
Despite the fact that our new report warns that women’s representation in Welsh politics is under threat, the discussions from this fringe suggest that – in some quarters at least – the will is still there to turn things around. Let’s hope our warnings are headed and the Welsh Assembly Government can once again become a world leader in women’s representation – putting Westminster to shame.
Find out more about the Counting Women IN campaign at www.countingwomenIN.org