When she was 12, Mandu Reid spent 18 months at a school in Devon, where she was the only black student. She was spat at, called a “black bitch” and “ostracised and ridiculed”.
“It was horrendous,” said the 39-year-old leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), who in February announced she was running to be the mayor of London. But these school days gave her “more clarity on how it is wonderful to have big ideas, but it’s actually important to understand that you are going to have to fight for them, and you aren’t always going to have a receptive audience”.
The experience was formative for Reid, who has fronted the five-year-old feminist party since April 2019 and is Britain’s first black party political leader. Her mayoral candidacy was last-minute, however. Computer scientist Sue Black, the party’s original contender, pulled out due to health complications. Reid is “devastated” for Black, but sees an opportunity “to represent and stick up for women and girls across London”.
In the 2016 London elections, the WEP won 3.5 per cent of the vote. This put it “within a whisker” of getting a member on to the Greater London Assembly, Reid told me when we met in a café near the party’s south London offices, “and that was when we had zero name recognition”.
As a small party in a first-past-the-post system, the WEP’s focus during the 2019 general election was not on winning a parliamentary seat, but on getting violence against women on the political agenda. In May’s proportional representation vote for the London Assembly, however, the party is campaigning for equal representation, pay and health care, as well as for affordable childcare and the end of violence against women. Reid believes that the WEP can get at least one of its 11 list candidates onto the Greater London Assembly. It is also fielding 14 constituency candidates.
Born in Malawi in 1981, Mandu Reid spent most of her childhood in the former Swaziland in southern Africa, before moving to London aged 18. Her politics, she told me, was “massively” shaped by growing up during the twilight years of Apartheid.
“My mother is black, my father is white, so just the very existence of our family was kind of politically significant.” To Reid, who was a “late developer when it comes to my feminism”, it was “the fight for racial equality” that felt more urgent when she was growing up. On the day of our interview racism was high on the news agenda, following the resignation of Downing Street adviser Andrew Sabisky, who had made online comments on race and eugenics, and an ITV News poll uncovered racism in parliament.
In a campaign video, Reid says she is running to amplify women’s voices. She is adamant that she will do the same for black, Asian and minority ethnic voices. “You know black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth or due to complications during pregnancy than white women.” In her view, it’s a statistic that “should be on everyone’s lips”.
An abortion at the age of 33 was another formative experience for Reid. That decision was made partly because of finances, and it highlighted for her the extent to which women are expected to take on the responsibilities of childcare.
In London, she pointed out, the maternal employment rate is 8 per cent lower than the UK average. Such responsibilities should be “more equally shared”, she said, adding that she thinks that “the men will see that the women in their lives are happier… I don’t know why they can’t see this as a benefit”.
Reid, who in 2015 set up period poverty NGO The Cup Effect, has worked at City Hall for 12 years, most recently as the fund manager for the Mayor of London’s Sports Legacy Programme. She has worked for all three of London’s mayors. How did Sadiq Khan respond to her running against him? “I saw him in the lift the other day and he was… he’s a nice guy, he was as friendly as he always is.” Boris Johnson did a good job “if you think the job of the mayor is to be an advert or a cheerleader for what a great city London is”, she said with a faux posh accent, adding that “the mayor’s responsibility is more solemn”.
Reid says none of London’s mayors have done enough for women. At least Khan “talks the talk” and “confidently calls himself a proud feminist”, but “it’s about leadership, it’s about ambition, it’s about what they choose to prioritise”.
What would Reid do differently? She says she would ensure the city’s plans for dealing with the knife crime crisis – “which have some merit” – acknowledge how domestic abuse and sexual violence fuel violence. She would “want to create a situation where no woman is turned away from a refuge” and to set up a research institute focused on women’s health.
But the overall vision is for London to become the world’s first gender-equal city. Reid explained how that would mean equal representation and people being able to “live their lives without the disproportionate threat of violence. Women are at the sharp end of that and it doesn’t get talked about.”
I asked why neither Labour nor the Conservatives had ever fielded a woman candidate for mayor. “This may sound flippant,” Reid said, “but it’s just because of misogyny. It permeates every facet of our lives and we don’t even realise the ways in which we are socialised to deprioritise women and girls.”
This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy