Founded in March 2015, by October the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) had a manifesto and by April 2016 a membership of over 45,000, including registered supporters. In the upcoming elections Sophie Walker, party leader, is running for London Mayor and WEP candidates are standing for the British assemblies. In an interview with editors Artemis Photiadou and Luke Temple, Sophie outlines how WEP hopes to set the equality agenda, and how they are working differently to both traditional political parties and political activism.
WEP was founded just over a year ago; what would you consider your main achievements to have been so far?
Well we have started a new political party in Britain; we tend to gallop past that bit but when you stop to think about it, it’s extraordinary. Political parties are incredibly hard to create, is what we’ve discovered. The system is very much geared towards long-established, well-connected, well-funded establishment organisations. And frankly to get through all that and be where we are – a registered political party – with around 45,000 members and registered supporters, and 73 branches, is incredible. The growth and commitment of our members is very exciting – it’s incredibly exciting to see all these people connecting with politics again. Many people were put off by what was on offer in the 2015 General Election, and to me the achievement of WEP is to bring a huge number of those people back into feeling like they are part of politics again.
We have created a space for political conversation in Britain that says women’s equality – and the greater equality that comes for everybody with that – has now been taken on board. Equality is not something that you can push at the back of the manifesto or leave to be a minor detail. What we’ve seen in terms of this London context has been that the other candidates are now trying to claim for themselves the title of being the party of women’s equality. And that’s great! That’s what we are here to do. We are a non-partisan party and that’s another achievement: creating a non-partisan political party in Britain.
So what does non-partisan political party mean?
It’s doing politics differently. It’s about creating the broadest possible movement of people behind a set of ideas. What we see and what we hear from people who come to our party is that politics is increasingly less tribal and much more about ideas. And what’s been putting a lot of people off from participating in politics is that politics is having to be on one side or the other; and then you have to fight each other. So creating a non-partisan party that brings people from the Conservative party, the Labour party, the LibDems, the Greens, all behind one goal, is extraordinary. And it proves that you can do politics differently and that people engage if they have a different way through which they can come together and fight a common ground.
How has the media and other political parties treated your efforts of doing politics differently?
For the media we spent a lot of time in their lifestyle section. A women’s party…put them in the lifestyle section. The media approached us in the same way that political parties have treated equality: that it’s a specialist issue, rather than the representation of what 50 per cent of the population experiences. But we are in the newspages now, which has taken a while to get there, and that’s not through us being more serious now but I think it’s an understanding as the party has grown and published our policies and held events and attracted more members; a growing understanding that this is something to be reckoned with.
Political parties are now trying to take ownership of equality again because through WEP they see that there is a demand for it; and that we speak for a large chunk of the electorate. But that’s great. That’s the reason we are non-partisan; we want to create an electoral force, to make change. I challenge other parties to do it first; beat us to it. I am not here because I want a career as a politician; I am doing this because I am sick of waiting for someone else to do it. And would actually like them to put us out of business; everything that we do, everything that we create, the policies we work on: we are offering them to other political parties. These are very practical ideas, they are non-partisan ideas, and this is not something you can say it does not fit in with your party’s stance. We can work together and get it done.
You’ve previously said that WEP will ideally disband in 2020 – because that would mean your policies have been adopted by the mainstream parties. So why have you chosen the political arena rather than activism?
Did you see any activism that was making progress in terms of women’s rights? I think there’s some fantastic women’s organisations doing some fantastic work and it’s not to say that we haven’t progressed; we have equal pay and the Sex Discrimination Act, we also have shared parental leave. These are statutes; none of them work very well. The other political parties have failed to lean in and make this stuff work. And we have seen that there are wonderful recommendations made year after year by fantastic groups and they don’t get through the door. Nothing changes. So we very deliberately set out to adopt the same model that was used so effectively by the Green Party and by UKIP, which is to put a political party around our goal; to use it as an electoral force. Because when you start threatening the vote share of the other parties, that’s when your agenda becomes their agenda.
How about issues not directly related to women’s equality but which matter indirectly? Electoral reform for example. Do you have a party line on this?
We have no party line, no. We are laser-focussed on our six objectives. But it is very clear that the First Past the Post system leaves the two main parties feeling as if they are almost entitled to people’s votes.
Why would someone choose to vote for WEP on 5 May?
Well you get four votes: two votes for Mayor and two for the Assemblies; and we think it’s only fair to give half your votes to equality. We actually stand a very good chance of winning Greater London Assembly seats, and holding the mayor into account. By running as mayor I am forcing all of the other candidates to take on board the stuff that I stand for because that’s what the people who vote for me want. A vote for us not only helps us win seats but tells all other parties that when it comes to equality, we really have to do better than this.
Sophie Walker became leader of the Women’s Equality Party in July 2015. She previously worked as a journalist for over 20 years. She is an ambassador for the National Autistic Society and has written the book Grace under Pressure. You can follow her on twitter @SophieRunning.