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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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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.