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The first Women’s Equality Party Conference was more personal than political

The UK’s first mainstream feminist party is speaking to those who feel they’ve been left out.

The audience watches in silence as a tall, slender woman dressed completely in black weeps openly onstage.

All eyes are on Sophie Walker as she reveals how personal struggles with her daughter’s autism have inspired her to lead a political movement. It’s a party conference, but not as we know it.

The Women’s Equality Party has talked about turning male-dominated politics on its head since its inception 18 months ago, and in the red-brick Victoria Warehouse decked out in Suffragette purple in Manchester, they have complete faith that they already are.

This historic first party conference is notable for the absence of media scrum — no TV cameras reporting live on the day’s events held fittingly in the city which was the birthplace of Emmeline Pankhurst.

It’s the mainstream media’s loss, as the 1,500 mostly female attendees see it, for they do not feel they are small-time — on the contrary, they feel theirs is the most worthy cause there is.

What’s covered in Walker’s speech is not man bashing, or anything close. She does not admonish or preach — and even if she did, the assembled choir are well in tune with what she has to say.

"Individual freedoms will never liberate us, because our oppression is structural. And in the history of this world, structural inequalities have only ever been defeated by movements,” she declares.

Her impassioned speech addresses more than just the WEP’s much-vaunted six objectives — equal representation, equal pay and opportunity, equal parenting and caregiving, equal education, equal media treatment and an end to violence against women. A standing ovation is her well-earned reward.

A lot of the weekend’s events have the feeling of being self congratulatory. But then, why wouldn’t the 65,000 members of the WEP — or, as they refer to themselves, WE — be pleased with its progress.

Since its formation on March 2, 2015 by the journalist Catherine Mayer and the comedian Sandi Toksvig, the party has created a buzz loud enough for other parties to hear.

Walker’s bid for London Mayor against Sadiq Khan saw her gather up a quarter of a million votes — one in 20 of those cast — and they have already co-authored amendments to revenge porn legislation with the Liberal Democrats. But then, as the author Stella Duffy — an original and current steering committee member — tells her audience: “Women’s equality is vogue”.

If it’s a fashion, it’s one that these enthusiastic members have been holding on for.

One women tells me: “When I heard that, at the age of 67, I was finally going to be able to join a party who campaigned for me, I wept and wept.”

Diane from Leeds has been a feminist since the 1970s, but felt “left out by third wave feminism”.

“My friends say to me, ‘why aren’t you in Labour helping to make changes?’” she reveals, adding: “I like what Corbyn has done in the party, but I’m not keen on his attitude to women.”

Somewhat unusually, the WEP say they would welcome other parties stealing their policies.

“I’m not going anywhere until this is done,” Walker tells me post-speech. “I will either do it myself or I will squeeze all the other parties until they do it first. It’s not simply about having equality on their list of ‘things to do’ - it’s about doing it.

“We are challenging other parties and threatening their vote share. They recognise that there are votes in this, but also they recognise that voters like the idea of working collaboratively. This very tribal, ding-dong politics puts a lot of people off.”

Walker believes that the WEP are bringing people to politics who previously thought it wasn’t for them — but they’re also thriving on disenchanted votes from the political left, right and centre.

“We’re taking votes from everyone. We’re trying to explain that women’s equality does not sit in one part of the political spectrum, because that’s the reason why the movement has made so little progress.

“It’s become a political football used by parties who want to own it but then de-prioritise it. What we’re doing is challenging all parties and taking votes from them, because there are brilliant feminists in all of those other parties.”

It’s possible there are disenchanted former Tories or even Ukipers in the crowd, but it certainly isn’t my experience as I chat to those I meet, the overwhelming number simply never having been involved in politics before.

Although it’s been said that the party is lacking in support for women of colour and LGBT+, the current longest-serving leader of a UK-wide party believes its diversity is growing.

“I’m white and educated and, in some people’s eyes, I fell at the first hurdle. But as a party which wants to represent all women we are about listening and learning.”

Emma Ko, co-leader of Camden WEP, tells me the accusation that they are all "middle-class white women" doesn’t faze her.

“The middle class white women are the ones to get female voices out there,” she says, matter-of-factly.

There are surprising attendees here — speakers obviously include the erudite Toksvig, but more bizarre is 1980s popstar and X Factor mentor Sinitta, who speaks about her “authentic self” to a crowd who clearly have her hit single “So Macho” playing on a loop in their heads.

Inspiration comes too from those who have done so much, like Gudrun Schyman, Swedish MP and co-founder of its Feminist Initiative party.

But despite Walker’s assertion, it seems not all of the other parties are listening.

A cross party panel on feminist issues brings WEP co-founder Mayer alongside Conservative MP — and former women’s and equalities minister — Nicky Morgan, Liberal Democrat peer Sal Brinton and Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack.

The panel explains that Labour, in what could almost be considered a template for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, thought about sending someone along and said they might — before eventually not bothering.

With all this talk about women, it would be easy to forget the men, but they are here.

Hugh from Canterbury is one I meet who seems ideal for WEP posters — in his 60s, he is comfortable with the conversation surrounding him.

I ask if he feels a vote for the nascent WEP is a vote wasted. In a word, no.

“Once we get gender equality sorted out on a global scale,” he reasons, “Everything else will fall into place.”

For the members of the WEP— Britain’s first truly feminist party — it really does seem as simple as that.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist based in Manchester.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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