Sophie Walker: You can't build a movement of people who look and sound the same

The Women's Equality Party leader is stepping aside to make space for diversity.

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It’s odd to quit a vital job with the aim of demonstrating what a vital job it is. Announcing that I am resigning from the Women's Equality Party (WEP) in order for our feminist political party to thrive might look like putting the brakes on a car that is just picking up speed. But actually, I’m throwing open the doors and changing the tyres on the move – which is what this job has always felt like.

You might have wanted to do something about the mess that is our political system for a while. Perhaps you’ve been shouting at the TV in baffled rage at the so-called political gurus. Maybe you’re paying greater attention to a niggle inside that’s proving harder to ignore each day. You could be trying to suppress it, telling yourself that you can’t make a difference, or that you wouldn’t know where to start. “I despair”, you tell your friends.

George Eliot wrote: “What we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.” Eliot was a woman who adopted the name of a man so people would hear her voice. We should listen to her. Within despair lies rebellion – the hope that you can still be one of the people who make a difference. The people who drove us into this political cul-de-sac are not those who are going to get us out. We urgently need new voices. 

When I raised my hand to help build the Women’s Equality Party I was a political amateur. I thought having worked as a political journalist meant I knew what I was getting into. This early miscalculation caused me considerable discomfort. It caused me to make mistakes. But it also made possible the achievements of this new Party under my leadership.

In the Party’s first election I stood as London Mayor - the Evening Standard’s ‘surprise candidate’ who could not have been more shocked herself. We gained nearly 250,000 votes and beat George Galloway, despite running the entire campaign in just three months from a makeshift office with a hole in the ceiling. In Shipley I stood against an MP who, in the name of men’s rights, works to diminish those of women. No other party had prioritised his defeat. We turned out the progressive vote and halved his majority – something the Labour Party quietly thanked us for on election night. And when Article 50 was rushed through, our amendment to hold back decision-making by an unelected executive gained the most cross-party support. In the meantime I travelled around the UK meeting women in kitchens and church halls and parks and cafes, encouraging them to believe that politics was for them, too.

I threw myself into preaching feminism with a missionary zeal that at times caused the kind of upset you’d expect from that word. But it taught me this: You can’t build a movement without learning to be comfortable with discomfort. You can’t build one without building trust. And you can’t build a movement of people who look and sound the same.

I wrote in my resignation letter that I was frustrated by my inability to make more space for women of colour, for working class women and for disabled women to lead in politics. I know that for these women, including those already working hard within WEP, I must also help to break down the multiple barriers to their leadership. As Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinene, the authors of Slay in Your Lane, write: "it’s not a glass ceiling that Black women face, but a concrete one". Providing a platform for women requires acknowledging the very real structural inequalities that confront them. For women at the margins, the reality of structural inequalities is even greater.  

I also want to make space for women to learn from mistakes. The demand for politicians to be ‘real’ is accompanied by the demand that they possess answers to every question. Without space for mistakes, politics calcifies; we get evasion and a painful dance of political interviews where politicians try desperately not to be the Person Who Got The Answer Wrong.

If you are white and middle class and not disabled, I want to say to you that standing aside is not the same as switching off. Standing aside involves seeking out other women and listening to them. You may already be one of many women around the country holding local communities together while Parliament fractures. Know that the strength of your activism lies in your ability to link arms with women who are not like you.

I did an interview for a glossy magazine last year. I laid out my ambitions to the journalist who was interviewing me. At the end she said: “I feel as though in stepping up you’ve had to martyr yourself.” I don’t want women to look at politics and see it as something that will burn us. I want us together to reclaim politics so its fire can light a new way ahead.

Here’s my hand.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.