Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A very personal report on the AGM in Liverpool

As a WI beginner, I was a little apprehensive about my first AGM. Browsing through the agenda, I noticed not only was I expected to sing ‘Jerusalem’ (not a problem – I’d been practicing) but also ‘Land of my Fathers’ - in Welsh!

Anyway, minor concerns aside, I settled down in the Liverpool Echo Arena and surveyed the scene… My West Yorkshire posse were close by and thoroughly reassuring throughout the day. All around, women - dressed for the occasion mainly in frocks or suits, some in hats. (I felt slightly underdressed in jeans, but I am pregnant so my current wardrobe options are limited!)

The meeting kicked off with the expected rendition of Jerusalem, and was followed by a brief introduction from Ruth Bond, our chair. I was pleased to learn that the WI gained 21,000 new members last year and 102 new WI’s were created.

Financially, I learned that the WI is solvent (always a relief). There was a slight drop in income from subscriptions and advertising, but Denman College revenue and product sales were up.


We were given a quick update on current campaigns. I learned that the 2010 resolution for improved food labelling has seen some success, with many retailers signing up to a voluntary code, but the WI will continue to campaign until this is mandatory.

The ‘Care not Custody’ campaign continues to receive support from the press and government and we learned that Ken Clark has put aside five million pounds for schemes to divert mentally ill adults and young people from the courts to hospital.

The ‘Fast Fashion’ campaign tackles the issues around our desire for cheap clothes. We all like a bargain, but the flip side can be sweatshops, child labour and overflowing landfill sites - not nice. The WI suggests swishing (a Baildon Belles favourite), sewing and asking retailers what they are doing about the problem. I also have a tip: buy less but buy better (justify your humongous net-a porter order with the thought that these super-expensive designer clothes will last a lifetime).

I was also impressed to learn that Liverpool WI are supporting the ‘SOS for Honeybees’ campaign by training as beekeepers and have a hive on a city centre roof! Maybe this is something we could copy in West Yorkshire!

Also mentioned was the proposed abolition of cheques in 2016. I realise that this is a huge issue for many members and so can report that the WI believes cheques should only be abolished if a suitable alternative can be found.


We had three good speakers but my favourite by a long way was Erwin James. Having read his column in the Guardian for years, I was really looking forward to hearing him and he didn’t disappoint. He was a charming flirt with his female audience, and despite his horrible crimes, he had us all feeling sympathy and compassion for both him and his cause.

I didn’t realise he was born in Yorkshire, and was genuinely touched by his account of a tragic and neglectful childhood. Admittedly, I am a bit of a softy and my pregnancy hormones are out of control, but I had to wipe away a tear when he talked about growing up in a home in Ilkley and longing to live in a house with a family like ‘normal people’. The main message I took away was that two thirds of prisoners re-offend, and our society prefers the idea of retribution to rehabilitation.

The second speaker, Dr Rita Gardner, talked about the importance of geography, and although it was a very worthy subject, I wasn’t particularly gripped.

Sir Steve Redgrave was the final speaker, and once we’d sat through his ‘isn’t Steve Redgrave a great bloke’ promotional video, I found him reasonably interesting on the subject of Fairtrade. As well as promoting himself, he also managed to plug his own Fairtrade clothing line (available in all good stores, very reasonably priced – hmmm…) Some good stuff too though, and hopefully it reminded us all how worthwhile it is to choose Fairtrade products.


So, I’ve saved the most exciting bit until last… I expected the voting on the resolutions to be fairly staid and routine. I reckoned that the most dramatic possibility was me mixing up my colour-coded voting cards – how wrong I was!

The first resolution passed off peacefully enough, with 6097 for and only 138 against (not unexpected: it’s hard to find many people who are opposed to libraries!) Then the excitement started…

The second resolution was about proposed mega farms. We’d discussed this in advance at our meeting, and it’s fair to say that Baildon Belles and the other two WI’s I was representing were not entirely comfortable with the ambiguous wording. I think it’s reasonable to sum up our position before the AGM as being: mega farms are possibly not a good thing for animal welfare, but we’d like to know how a mega farm is defined before voting against it.

The format is to hear the person who proposed the resolution, then have an expert for and one against. Personally, I was very persuaded by the speaker for the resolution (Helen Browning – director of the Soil Association and an organic farmer herself) and didn’t really warm to the personality or arguments of the speaker against (Peter Kendal, president of the National Farmers’ Union).

Then it all started to happen. Just as I was getting ready to vote, juggling red, green and white cards in my sweaty nervous palms, chaos erupted. Person after person stood up from the floor, saying that we shouldn’t vote on such a badly worded resolution. The poor chair was not happy about this, and with obvious unease, said we had to vote. Oh, but no, the audience weren’t having any of that. In the end, a new motion was proposed by the floor, and we effectively voted not to vote on the resolution! Confused? I was!

Apparently this was the first time ever in the history of the WI that this has happened, and I was certainly excited to be there and see it unfold! From a personal viewpoint, I was happy not to have to vote. I had a feeling that if a vote had been forced, it may have gone in support of mega farms, which I felt slightly uncomfortable with given the ambiguity of the resolution.


The meeting was rounded off with a talk about Denman College and we learned a lot more about some of the brilliant courses they run. I felt so inspired that when I got home, I suggested Baildon Belles offer an annual bursary to encourage members to attend courses, and we’ve agreed to provide £300 each year to a worthy candidate.

Denman College also announced the launch of a fundraising initiative. They want us to help them sell a million cups of tea and raise £5 per member. More information on this will no doubt follow.

The meeting ended with an encouraging speech from the chair, Ruth Bond. I especially liked the quote she gave from Roosevelt: ‘The world is run by those who turn up.’

She also reminded us that the WI will be one hundred years old in 2015, and planning has already begun for the centenary celebrations.

Finally, a performance by ‘The Harmonies’, who looked great and sang very nicely, but unfortunately no longer have an agent or a record deal. Oh well, there’s always the X Factor, ladies.

  • Feeling extremely young all day*, and hearing someone loudly ask one of my West Yorkshire colleagues: ‘She’s not WI is she?” Repeat after me: ‘Oh yes I am!”
  • Being looked after by the West Yorkshire gang and sharing childbirth stories over dinner.

  • Singing ‘Land of My Fathers’ in Welsh. Sorry Wales – I was awful.

* I am quite categorically not young – I am almost 40 and my bones ache.

Sara x