In the masculine world of British politics there’s a new, feminist power emerging – the Women’s Equality Party. Ahead of their first birthday, Stylist’s Zoe Beaty follows their quest to change the political landscape…
Photography: Tom Schierlitz
I’m sitting on the edge of a hard wooden chair in central London’s Conway Hall. It’s so packed out – with hundreds of people, mainly women, some of whom are standing in the aisles – that my shoulders are touching with the kind-looking woman next to me. On the stage ahead, the group we’ve all come to hear gather round the microphone and a hush falls over the palpably excited crowd. There are whoops as the fire exit is pointed out and giddy cheers as the members are introduced. But we’re not at a gig, or any kind of performance. We’re here at 11am on a dreary October morning – for the policy launch of the Women’s Equality Party (WE).
Yes, it’s a political conference – only, not as we know it. If UK politics looks like the televised male-centric updates from the House of Commons, the WE launch is exactly the opposite. I’m slightly taken aback. I’ve never witnessed quite so many people so positively celebratory about politics. And listening to former journalist and WE leader Sophie Walker rolling out their policies, I find myself increasingly fascinated with the potential for a new beginning in British politics. But while their six policies seem jaw-droppingly simple (detailed further down), I want to know how easy it really is to launch a new political party in the fusty, traditional world of Westminster. Not least a party with women at its core – particularly when, in 2016, there are currently more serving male MPs than there have ever been female MPs in history. I resolve to find out what the WE are all about and whether their approach could really change the face of politics so, over the subsequent six months as they reach their first birthday, I follow the party to see what it takes to build a new movement.
It all began last March, with a throwaway remark born out of frustration. “Let’s form a women’s party and see what happens,” said Catherine Mayer, a highly esteemed journalist and author, and former editor of Time, while watching a talk about women in politics at last year’s Women of the World Festival. “I’ll be in the bar afterwards if anyone wants to discuss it,” she added.
Turns out, a lot of people wanted to discuss it. The shared desire of everyone who joined her at the bar was simple: to challenge both the invisibility of women in power and bring equality to the forefront of the political agenda because, as their slogan now reads, ‘Equality is better for everyone’. It was a desire shared by journalist, comedian and TV and radio personality Sandi Toksvig. And thus the pair co-founded WE on 28 March and suddenly, two women who had been previously commenting from the sidelines were on their way to making a real change in politics.
“People started to pick up on the idea,” Mayer explains to me when we meet. “And it started to get talked about on social media.” The influx of interest more than exceeded the founders’ expectations, who had no website and had to rely on Facebook and email to organise their emerging political party.
At this fledgling stage, no-one was paying membership fees – financial details had barely occurred to them. They were relying on their own funds and the generosity of friends for marketing materials and meeting spaces. Other than that, all they really had were the bare bones of something potentially powerful: hundreds of women, all wanting to fight for something they believed in.
One such sign-up was 44-year-old Sophie Walker, a former journalist and author of two books. By the summer, members had chosen her as leader, and she now runs the party alongside Mayer and Toksvig.
“From the first week there was this rush of enthusiasm,” Walker says in her soft Scottish accent in-between taking hurried sips of green tea. Our first meeting, in early November shortly after WE’s policy launch, takes place in a cafe at London’s Southbank Centre, where Walker is speaking on a panel debating gender and politics. “I was sick of talking about equality and not seeing any action. And when I saw Catherine Mayer suggest the idea of a political party dedicated to just that on Facebook, I immediately commented saying I was in.”
Call to action
“We got together straightaway and I started making phone calls around my day job, before 6am and late at night. Word began to spread on social media and women – some who’d worked on shop floors saying they had been denied equal pay; some sick of sexism working at corporate banks; retired women saying their pension was tiny because they weren’t paid equally in their working lives – got in touch saying they wanted to join and set up branches. We started brainstorming, creating leaflets and knocking on doors to get the word out. It hasn’t stopped from there.”
The name was decided from the get-go, and two months later their purple and green WE logo had been designed – a favour by a friend of Mayer’s. The colours were chosen in homage to the Suffragettes though, fittingly, WE’s logo was later developed into an array of colour wheels in a symbolic gesture to diversity – and to show they were different to other parties.
“We set our six objectives when we first got together,” explains Walker. “We put the call out to every single member (they now have 45,000) and asked them to tell us what they thought. It was very communal – we had huge workshops where people brought food, their children… Then we [the party leaders] locked ourselves away in a room in a tiny, tatty office we were sub-letting from a charity – we had moved on from Catherine Mayer’s kitchen table by then, but only just. We worked all day and all night to get through the information. We ordered a lot of pizza…”
It’s a mind-boggling undertaking, especially when you consider the heritage of the bigger players – the Conservative Party, for instance, have honed their policies and beliefs over a 300-year history. Yet within four months of its launch, WE was registered with the electoral commission alongside mainstream parties.
Rather than aligning themselves with the left or right wing, WE decided they would be non-partisan. And, instead of attempting to come up with solutions for all areas of politics – such as the economy and foreign affairs – they agreed to adopt policies regarding only equality and use cross-party politics to encourage other parties to use and implement their ideas.
“We decided we would affect change in two ways – one being the direct electoral threat. The other is us saying to all the other parties, have our policies. Do it first, we don’t care who does it, we just want the problem solving,” she says.
“Often it feels like politicians are simply paying lip-service to equality issues. What we want to do is get it done. We want to achieve equality, then disappear from politics – we want there to be no need for this party.”
Within six months of the initial idea for a political party, WE had established branches all over the country from Scotland to Leeds and London to Cardiff.
But if Walker feels exhausted on our first meeting, she barely lets it show. In fact, she could seem intimidating. We’re both tall (I’m 6ft), but as she towers over me, she smiles broadly and I instantly warm to her. She speaks quickly and purposefully, in eloquent sentences she can’t wait to finish because there are too many more to follow. She has a confident presence, honed, I imagine, during her successful 20-year career covering politics, business and foreign affairs for press giant Reuters. During President Bush’s term she was stationed in Washington; she was in Westminster at the end of the Blair years and has worked in Afghanistan, Paris and Iraq.
Walker – who, aside from leading a political party, is also a marathon runner and mother of two who blogs regularly on her 14-year-old daughter’s experience of Asperger syndrome – occasionally lapses into soundbites but quickly checks herself. “I sound like I’m talking in politician speak,” she concedes during one chat. “But I really mean it. I really, really mean it,” she adds. “I feel this huge responsibility to everybody who is part of this movement and who has come to this party saying, ‘It’s time to take action’.” She’s convincing; if anyone can lead a party as ambitious as WE to success, it’s her.
As the weeks pass, WE gradually gain in public support. However, criticisms arise. Their proposal to criminalise the buying of sex and a desire to implement equality quotas in the workplace prove divisive and they are criticised in the media for not being inclusive enough of minority groups, or of working class women. When, in November, I attend my first branch meeting on a chilly Tuesday night in Islington, over 100 members turn up – an incredible amount for a start-up. WE are clear that they welcome members of all age, gender and ethnicity, yet of all those attending, seven are non-white, and just one is male. It’s a little jarring.
But why have the members joined in the first place? “I don’t feel like there’s another political party that are taking this seriously,” Michelle Daisley, 36, a management consultant from Islington tells me. “I want things to change, now. It’s not happening quickly enough because the mainstream parties aren’t listening. It’s time we all stopped talking and capitalised on the momentum in feminism at the moment.”
“I joined because of Tinder,” Nick Hayes, a 33-year-old writer and illustrator from East London – and fully paid up member of WE (it costs £12 a year) – says. “Online dating opened my eyes to what women are having to put up with. So many girls I came across felt they had to write in their bios that they didn’t want to receive naked pictures of guys or explicit texts,” he adds. “We need to get this [achieving equality] out of the way, so we can concentrate on other imminent issues like the environment.”
The meeting can hardly be described as radical – in fact, it’s slightly bumbling and the ‘group activities’ recorded on A2 paper don’t exactly generate ground-breaking ideas. For the most part, instead of a political meeting, I feel like I’m back at my after-school youth club, waiting for the bell to sound for a tuck-shop break. But, despite this, I leave feeling hopeful about the passion and determination I’ve witnessed.
Making a difference
It’s a similar story the next time I see Walker in January in her native Scotland. It’s 11.30am on a particularly blustery Wednesday and she is, unsurprisingly, in a rush – in an hour she has a private meeting with Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party. She runs through, blow-by-blow, what the WE have been doing since I last saw her: running branch meetings, fielding for candidates to stand in the May Scottish elections, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Authority elections. “But before that, we needed to raise £31,000 just to put our names on ballot papers in three elections – it’s a shock how much money is involved when you start a political party,” she says.
“You can see clearly what a huge advantage the other parties have – the Conservatives have big business behind them, the Labour Party have the unions. We don’t have that. But we do have crowdfunding. And I think that speaks volumes about the commitment from our members at grassroots level. They are getting involved and putting their money behind the change they want to see. We gave ourselves six weeks to raise over £30k – we did it in six days.”
Back in London later that month, the party hold a star-studded fundraising event in Westminster to an almost packed out theatre holding 2,000 people. Caitlin Moran, Jo Brand and Sandi Toksvig, take to the stage, and it’s more like a party in the traditional sense; a night out for friends rather than a political rally, the audience sometimes roaring with laughter as Toksvig tells lesbian dating stories and Moran quips that feminism was all well and good but unnecessary until she had children and became a second-class citizen.
February brings more to smile about. WE take their biggest step yet, announcing 12 candidates to stand for the Greater London Authority, Scottish Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections in May. It will be the first time in British history that people affiliated with a party only dealing in women’s rights stand to be elected representatives in local government. Then it’s announced that Walker will stand to become Mayor of London – a hugely ambitious, but worthy goal that was unthinkable a year ago.
Almost immediately her candidacy makes waves; by March another mayoral candidate, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, is touting policies which are notably eerily similar to WE’s. After spending months listening to Mayer, Walker and Toksvig say how much they want others to adopt their policies, it feels like a fitting first birthday present.
And the presents came thick and fast as WE’s first birthday celebrations began last week, a special part of this year’s Women of the World Festival. They’re back in the impressively plush Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank where the first mention of the Women’s Equality Party was uttered just 12 months ago.
It may not be the kind of polished, perfectly organised celebration you’d expect from one of the traditional political parties but the WE don’t hold with political traditions. Nimco Ali, a prominent member of WE, FGM campaigner and Daughters of Eve co-founder, brings a vagina-shaped lollipop as a gift and Mayer’s husband, Andy Gill, of rock group Gang of Four, plays Happy Birthday on electric guitar. Everyone wears party hats.
To finish, Walker makes a rousing speech. “Whatever the state of equality in Britain, there’s one place we’re equal: the ballot box. I am standing for mayor because I want to be that change I have waited so long to see.”
“Finally,” she says, her voice ever so slightly breaking, “there is a political party that means we don’t have to wait for equality. Finally, we don’t have to stand in line and ask nicely, and hope that someone, somewhere is listening.” The applause is unprompted and heartfelt.
It’s been an incredible year by anyone’s standards. In 12 months WE has amassed more than 45,000 members, with 72 branches across the UK. They’re often referred to as the fastest growing political party in Britain and are now standing for election. In reality, WE are not yet a political threat. But in the six months I’ve been observing them, they’ve shown that they are a party with real power. To influence, to inspire, to hold the government to account. WE might not get everything right straightaway. But they’re not trying to run the country. Rather, they want the opposite: for someone else to run it, but in the right way. The question is, will anyone be up to the challenge?
The Women's Equality Party policies
1. Equal Representation
At the current rate, it will be 50 years before Parliament, the judiciary or business in Britain is gender balanced. The WE propose to introduce quotas to ensure equality in these areas, for instance, by 2020, 40% of board and executive committee positions should be held by women.
2. Equal pay and opportunity
WE want to fight for equal pay for everyone, through transparency requiring companies of over 250 employees to publish a detailed annual audit of pay equality (as opposed to just publishing the gap between average female and male earnings as required now).
3. Equal parenting and caregiving
WE want to encourage both parents to take advantage of shared potential leave plus introduce a ‘daddy month’ for fathers and co-parents to be taken anytime during the first year of a child’s life. They are pro-flexible working and are committed to changing the stigma around fatherhood including making baby-changing facilities available to all genders.
4. Equal education
From ensuring that girls learn about being pilots and boys learn about caring for dolls, WE want to implement gender equality guidelines for the under-fives. They will also explore gender quotas for primary level teacher training and support increasing the number of female headteachers.
5. Equal media treatment
To achieve positive representations of women in the media, WE propose speaking out about stereotypes, imposing warning notices on images of models with unhealthy body weights. They also want to publish data on the air time given to women and men on TV.
6. Ending violence against women
WE aim to make Britain safer by restoring legal aid for domestic violence cases and providing funding (partly through abolishing marriage tax allowance) for independent specialist women’s support services. They also want to end the practice of detaining pregnant asylum seekers.
For more information on WE, visit womensequality.org.uk