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29 November 2016updated 30 Jul 2021 6:47am

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.

By Kirstie mccrum

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.

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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.

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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.