With elections coming up in May this year, Holly Dustin gives us a briefing on what the Women’s Equality Party is all about.
Without a doubt, the British political landscape has shifted significantly since I was trudging through a Politics degree at the University of Nottingham 25 years ago. It was, in some ways, a simpler time for those of us interested in who has power and what they do with it. Margaret Thatcher was still in office (until 1990), and you were either for her or against her. Nelson Mandela was still in prison on Robben Island and the Cold War dominated geo-politics. You voted in elections and in between time you could make your voice heard by going on a demo or wearing a t-shirt (I did both). There were no smartphones, no epetitions, no Facebook likes, and definitely no lobbying your MP on twitter.
There were few women in Parliament then and Thatcher, known for ‘pulling the ladder up behind her’, only ever promoted one woman, Baroness Young, to her Cabinet in all eleven years of her premiership. The Politics Department at Nottingham was an all-male affair too (my memory is of a micro-Cold War between the Thatcher supporting majority and Marxist minority). Politics (capital P) was black and white, and did not appear to include feminism.
Twenty five years later we can say for sure that British politics is less blokey, though still too white and male with only 29% of MPs being women and less than 7% of MPs being from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and there is a new wave of feminist activism both in Parliament and outside it. Furthermore, British politics is fragmenting; the three-party system is breaking up with the collapse of the Lib Dems in Parliament and the rise of Nationalists around the UK. and smaller parties, such as UKIP and the Greens, gaining electoral support even if first-past-the-post means that support doesn’t translate into seats.
WE: the beginning
Emerging onto this new political terrain is the Women’s Equality Party (or WE as they prefer), led by journalist Sophie Walker and forming in the blink of an eye from an idea discussed by her fellow journalist Catherine Mayer and BBC presenter Sandi Toksvig in March 2015 (it was registered with the Electoral Commission by July). A political party with the sole purpose of advancing women’s equality would have been unimaginable to my teenage self and it is, of course, no coincidence that it has happened at this juncture of a surge in feminist activism and the breakdown of traditional party politics. Indeed, UKIP, which has pulled mainstream parties to the right on immigration and forced a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, are constantly referenced in discussions about WE. Unlike UKIP, WE say they want to be put out of business.
Having been to an early public meeting at London’s Southbank Centre in March 2015, one of the things that struck me was the name and framing. It was decided early that it would be the Women’s Equality Party not, for example, the Feminist Party as in Sweden (Feminist Initiative), and, whilst the F word is used liberally by Walker in media interviews, it is absent from the official Party blurb. This may be intentional in order to make the Party more palatable for those who feel they can sign up to women’s equality but not feminism (see recent Fawcett research on this) and to attract a membership that can potentially be drawn from the whole population. The strong message is that the Party is for both women and men, and that men will benefit from a more equal world for women (which they will, of course, but will also have to give up their social, economic and political privileges along the way.)
WE quickly made a splash when it launched, securing media attention well before it had a set of policies. It attracted many thousands of members before anyone really knew what they were signing up to beyond the concept of ‘women’s equality’ and ‘more women in parliament’. It already has over 70 local branches across the UK and a membership of more than 45,000 (as of October 2015). This in itself suggests a huge appetite for something more inclusive to women, less traditional and less alienating than the usual political fare. Hardly surprising when there are no female party leaders sitting in the House of Commons and Westminster politics looks increasingly stale and out of date when compared to the rest of the UK, especially Scotland where women head up the Scottish Government and lead the three largest parties.
After considerable work by themed committees, WE launched its policies across six areas in October 2015. These are; equal representation in politics and business, equal pay, equal parenting, equality in education, equal treatment of women in the media, an end to violence against women. With violence against women and girls (VAWG), the area with which I am most familiar, there are a range of strong policy positions, including scrapping the married couple’s allowance and shifting £800m of savings to legal aid and specialist support for women experiencing domestic and sexual violence. WE has also come out in support of the Nordic model of tackling the harms of prostitution whereby the selling of sex is decriminalised and the buying of sex is criminalised.
Rightly, WE aims to be ‘transformative’ but it does not yet have transformative policies in place. Party leaders have said that its remit is narrow and that WE candidates will be required to sign up to its core policies but free to hold positions on other issues. This seems to me to be unsustainable in the long run (and, sadly, I think we will need WE in the long run). In the first instance, it is unhelpful, not to say inaccurate, to send a message that women’s equality is a narrow issue, limited to six policy areas, not least when two of the biggest priorities for voters, the economy and foreign policy, are not amongst the six. Indeed, Walker herself has written coherently about sexual violence in conflict and the disproportionate impact on women of war in relation to Britain’s participation in military action in Syria and the refugee crisis in Europe. Likewise, it is difficult to justify not having a comprehensive economic policy when, a) it is the government’s top priority and b) the mainstream media and main political parties in Westminster routinely overlook the disproportionate impact of austerity measures on women and women’s poverty meaning that WE could have a real influence in the debate here.
Secondly, the positions of candidates on other policy areas might well conflict with the Party’s core policies. For example, immigration, also a top concern for voters, is not one of WE’s six policy areas and yet immigration policy has a real impact on the safety and equality of migrant and refugee women in the UK (and outside it). A WE candidate could conceivably find themselves in the position of supporting certain immigration policies that conflicted with WE policy and aims.
The policy-making process itself raised issues for me. Whilst there was a laudable intent to create policy from the grassroots up, such consultations have of course been carried out by other parties for many years so there is a risk of reinventing the wheel. For example, in relation to violence against women and girls, experts in the sector worked together for years to secure a cross party-commitment to a VAWG strategy in Westminster which the then Labour Government published in 2009. This was followed by the Coalition Government publishing its own Strategy in 2010 and a refreshed strategy is promised by the current Conservative Government this year. At a time when child sexual abuse and exploitation dominates the news headlines, this work continues to be championed by the Home Secretary and there is considerable engagement with the sector. The Strategy is far from perfect, but I would have preferred to see WE review and consult upon what is already in place and work with experts and specialist women’s services to improve it. Starting from scratch risked appearing to erase the hard work of the women’s sector, and indeed women in other parties, in getting government and other parties to the place they are. Hardly the collaborative approach WE espouse.
The Party has said that it wishes to appeal across the political spectrum and that it is non-partisan but I am not quite sure what this means in practice other than it does not accept the labels ‘left’ or ‘right’; mainstream parties are normally pretty happy to welcome defectors from other parties, and WE themselves have already shown that they are not above taking a well-deserved pop at other parties (see, for example, Walker’s astute dismissal of Jeremy Corbyn’s consideration of women- only train carriages to deal with sexual harassment).
Furthermore, whilst Party leaders consistently say that representation in politics matters and has an impact, the dominant image we have through the mainstream media (it may be different at meetings) is of a highly intelligent, but narrowly drawn group of women. The Party will be conscious that it will be under the spotlight on diversity, particularly now as it is selecting its candidates for elections this May for the London Mayor, London and Welsh Assemblies and Scottish Parliament.
These are all serious issues for the Party to address. However, when I look at the balance sheet I can’t help but think that WE is, overall, a pretty good thing, especially in a macho Westminster context. On the plus side, WE are very media savvy, as you would expect. Walker, Toksvig and Mayer are regularly quoted and interviewed, Walker in particular has commented on a range of subjects from the ‘tampon tax’ to the proposed removal of feminism from the school syllabus. The website is appealing and social media activity is engaging, including from local branches which sprang up with impressive speed. Bearing in mind that only a quarter of candidates who ran in the General Election in 2015 were women, WE’s application process for becoming a candidate in this May’s elections looked refreshingly accessible and welcoming, and included four days of free childcare.
What can WE do?
WE have been criticised for focusing on women’s representation as an end in itself (it supports quotas for the next two General Elections to herald in 50/50 representation in the House of Commons). I think this criticism is misplaced. If WE can help secure concrete shifts in the political representation of women of all backgrounds and fast forward us to a time when the insults ‘Blair’s Babes’ and ‘Cameron’s Cuties’ are no longer misogynistic currency it will have been worth it in my book. In fact, we know from past experience that significantly increased numbers of women has a direct impact on law and policy-making. When Labour used all-women-shortlists for the 1997 General Election there was a huge increase in women MPs, mostly Labour, and there followed a raft of policies on issues ranging from domestic violence and childcare to equality legislation.
Of course, without quotas, our First-past-the-post system for elections to the House of Commons is a barrier to WE winning seats but it is surely not impossible, as some argue, that one or two high profile candidates might win seats in 2020 if they have made progress in electoral support between now and then? And, as Caroline Lucas has shown for the Greens, one high profile MP can secure a lot of attention for the Party. The criticism that WE will split the progressive vote if they target seats where the sitting candidate does not support women’s equality is clearly a risk, especially in Westminster elections, but as WE say, nobody owns the votes of progressives.
I also believe that WE could have a strategic role in setting the standard for other parties on specific issues, as it has on tackling the harms of the prostitution industry where its support of the Nordic model sends a powerful message about the need to entirely transform gender relations including ending men’s right to buy women’s bodies. It is a controversial policy though and spokespeople will need to be confident in making connections with other areas of inequality including poverty, racism and sexualized sexism in the media. Likewise, WE will need to be astute in the positions it takes and arguments it makes about discrimination, harassment and violence towards trans women and men. These are important issues but they are currently at risk of being subsumed by calls for changes in equality laws and policies which would threaten specialist women’s support services and undermine monitoring of sex discrimination. It is a rocky time for feminist politics and debate with deep splits on these increasingly dominant issues and WE’s approach will be critical.
Britain has not had a female Prime Minister since 1990 and there has never been a permanent female leader of the Labour Party. The current Conservative and Labour leaders in Westminster are unable to shake off the perception that they struggle with women’s equality and endless scandals attest to a deeply ingrained culture of sexism across the political spectrum. It is a shameful state of affairs to be in in the 21st century.
So whilst we debate WE’s politics, whether to join and shape it from the inside, challenge from the outside, or even be inspired by it to set up our own feminist party, I believe that WE has a real contribution to make both to British politics and to women’s equality in Britain.
Holly Dustin is former Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition and co-Founder of the Centre for Gender Equal Media. @HDbrighton