At last month’s London Mayoral Hustings on ending violence against women and girls, Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), did not hide her disappointment with the other participants. Why, she asked, was she the only mayoral contender to show up? Only weeks after Sarah Everard’s killing, were the major parties revealing how little they care about the violence that women face?
Reid certainly thinks so, as she told me over Zoom recently. The 40-year-old, who has fronted the party since April 2019 and is the first person of colour to lead a British political party, is running with a manifesto that prioritises “building back equal”, as opposed to “better”. Action on violence against women and girls is a major plank, as is a “care revolution”.
The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women – in the labour market, in the unequal share of the care burden that women typically shoulder, and in the spike in domestic abuse – has drawn attention to the tenuous nature of feminist progress. To the six-year-old party’s credit, its manifesto for the 2020 London mayoral elections – before the vote was postponed due to Covid-19 – already pledged action on affordable childcare and ending violence.
The pandemic has only sharpened the party’s focus on these issues – and like everyone, Reid has had a tough year.
“I’m single. I live alone here in Lewisham,” she says, pointing at the room around her. “It was a very, very strange and difficult year.” She “had to adjust to dealing on a personal level with the fear and the uncertainty and the isolation, while also trying to transition into being an effective voice in the political landscape”.
Covid-19 also coincided with the end of Reid’s 12-year career at City Hall, where she worked under all three mayors. Reid began working full-time as party leader in March last year, around the time that the mass homeworking experiment started in earnest.
The WEP is a small party focused on getting one of its 14 candidates onto the London Assembly. “I am an outside bet” she repeats throughout our interview, but she wants to make sure the city’s women and girls “have a champion in City Hall… who doesn’t just remember they exist on International Women’s Day.” In May 2019, the party elected its first local councillor in “the feminist republic of Congleton” in Chesire.
Conscious of its niche status, the WEP’s tactic is to urge other parties to adopt its policies. Alongside making London the best place to be a carer and receive care, these currently include taking a holistic, public health approach to ending the violence that women face, turning London into a “sanctuary city” for abused migrant women, and rethinking housing and transport policy to make London a gender-equal city.
Echoing US Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who was recently mocked by Republicans for saying that caregiving and childcare are infrastructure, Reid “absolutely” thinks we need to see care in those terms. According to analysis last year by the Women’s Budget Group, investing in care would create 2.7 times as many jobs as investment in construction. Increasing the number of those working in care to 10 per cent of the working population and raising carer income to the real living wage would increase overall employment rates by 5 per cent.
“If our social care workers took a day off last year, if our childcare workers – who are enabling other key workers who are parents to go to work – took a day off last year… the whole system would have ground to a halt,” she says. “The excuse for not valuing and not investing in that aspect of our economy… has been completely blown out of the water.”
London’s maternal employment rate before Covid-19, she points out, was 8 per cent behind the average across the UK, according to City Hall figures. Increasing it would have added an estimated £21.5bn to London’s economy by 2025. “If we can get more of those women who want to be in work – and it is largely those who are parents, single mothers massively, disproportionately affected – they’re paying their taxes, they’re not claiming benefits, they’re buying things, and that is a massive economic stimulus.”
Is it enough for the “care revolution” to only take place in London? “Not the conclusion of the revolution, no,” says Reid, “but the genesis of it, why not?”
Reid is most “indignant”, as she puts it, when it comes to the matter of violence. “It’s an issue that really shows up why and how it can be problematic to have leadership and power concentrated in among people who don’t really understand an issue other than from a hypothetical perspective,” she says. “It upsets me that it’s OK for us to be collateral damage.”
Sadiq Khan and Shaun Bailey’s pledges to boost police numbers are not the answer, she adds, given that a “significant proportion” of violent incidents, including rapes and domestic abuse, take place behind closed doors. “How on earth are more bobbies on the beat going to make an impact?” she asks.
“It just really frustrates me that you have politicians” – Khan included – “making declarations of feminism… but actually, when you scratch the surface, it feels quite performative.”
Some polling indicates that the WEP’s stance on violence might yet give it a boost at the polls. According to The Times, the proportion of women who would vote Conservative fell from 46 to 41 per cent in the two weeks after Everard’s disappearance. In that same period, the proportion saying they would vote for the WEP went from 0 to 14 per cent.
Last year, when Reid was still at City Hall, she praised Khan for calling himself a “proud feminist”, but now she is more disparaging. Having spent most of her childhood in the former Swaziland in southern Africa during the beginning of the end of Apartheid, Reid has seen “what happens when the political will is there to actually change things”.
Reid is disappointed that Khan, who she thinks is a shoo-in to retain his position, isn’t using his electoral advantage for more radical change. This, she believes, is partly down to his long-term political aspirations. “It was an open secret inside City Hall that he is a man who’s going places, and where he is going is probably leader of the Labour Party,” she says. For all his faults, she adds, Ken Livingstone wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers, unlike his successors as Mayor of London.
Of course, Reid has to say she is an outside bet to become mayor. But would she secretly like to really, actually, win? Clearly, she would.
If by some “miracle intervention… I was elected”, she says, “we would be able to do some spectacular work over the next three years to really change the political paradigm… I think it would be absolutely massive.”