Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with my efforts to get the TUC to organise an annual march for working-class women's rights around the time of International Women's Day each year. These efforts have proceeded along a road full of pitfalls, with the TUC bureaucracy taking an agreed policy for a national demonstration and smothering it into a small-scale rally held at this very conference. On Thursday afternoon I got up and had a go about the TUC's sabotage of the event. Here's what I said; what was said in reply; and a report of the rally-not-march itself.
I am very much looking forward to the rally this evening, and thank everyone involved for the work they have put into organising it.
However, I have a big problem with the TUC's apparent lack of support and the consequent scaling-down of the event. I'll make it clear that my annoyance is directed not at the Women's Committee but at the TUC bureaucracy.
At this conference last year, when I successfully proposed the resolution for an annual demonstration around International Women's Day, I talked aboout thousands of men and women marching through a major city.
At TUC Congress last year, I asked the General Council to confirm that it would give this demonstration the resources and support it needed. The General Council said Yes, it would.
So why is it that the TUC failed to provide sufficient resources for us to hold a major march, and has instead left us with a rally at this Conference?
Why was information about the rally only posted on the TUC website on 1st March and leaflets sent out only two weeks ago?
The TUC's annual income is millions of pounds. I refuse to believe that it can not afford to organise a march for women's rights.
On March 3rd, I and several other women here took part in a march through central London in defence of abortion rights, organised by a bunch of young socialist feminists under the name Feminist Fightback, who have no funding at all, who begged and borrowed what resources they needed. It was a great protest. It suggests to me that when it comes to the TUC, it is not lack of resources that is the problem, but lack of political will.
I want to ask the Women's Committee: What will you do to ensure that the TUC better resources next year's event, so that we can march in public rather than rally in private? And what can we do to support you in this?
Replying, Patricia Stuart - who represents the General Council on the Women's Committee - denied that the General Council had pledged at Congress to back the demonstration, instead claiming that it had promised only to "take it into consideration". She has a very different recollection of Congress than mine.
She also told us that the TUC thinks that it can only organise two national protests each year, in order to maximise attendance, and that women's rights was not one of the two priorities. What a bizarre stance! It is easily possible to get a good turn-out on many more than two demonstrations per year. You just have to go about it with a bit of enthusiasm. In fact, having more demonstrations on the various issues affecting workers would ensure higher attendance, by creating momentum and confidence, and mobilising a movement fighting back on many fronts. Anyone would think that is precisely what the TUC does not want.
Patricia also spoke at length about local events to celebrate International Women's Day and how these were preferable to a national demonstration. But this was a speech delivered a year too late. Anyone with that opinion - or who, wrongly in my view, thinks that local and national events are counterposed - should have spoken against our resolution for a national demonstration last year. The fact is that no-one did, and it was passed unanimously.
Patricia continually attacked the idea of a march in London, on the grounds of how far protesters would have to travel, how unfair it was to be London-centric etc., conveniently ignoring the fact that I had not even mentioned London, but had said that we wanted a national demonstration in a major city. Still, let's not let the facts get in the way of a populist appeal to non-Londoners, eh?
At 5.30pm, we gathered in another room in the same building for the rally. Pretty much everyone in the audience was a delegate, so obviously there had not been the planned mobilisation of trade unionists from around the region - hardly surprising, given how late the publicity went out. Still, I was determined to see the positive side. Alongside the slogan-bearing banners and purple, green, white and red balloons, we hung our RMT Women's banner from the balcony, although our attempt to cover up the plaque marking the opening of the room by the Duchess of Kent was thwarted by the Duchess being too far to the right.
There were speeches from the TUC President (pictured), the NUS President, Labour Behind the Label, NHS Together, Abortion Rights, pensioners' campaigner Barbara Switzer, a woman trade unionist from Malawi, and a final cracker from Maria Exall about the need for a Trade Union Freedom Bill, in which every mention of John McDonnell was cheered.
But I couldn't help feeing deflated at the sight of empty seats when I could have been looking at thousands of marchers.