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From the front lines of a feminist disrupter campaign

The Women’s Equality Party knows it doesn’t have much hope of gaining a seat on 12 December, so it is instead campaigning with a focus on ending gender-based violence. But can women compete with Brexit?

In a self-defeating yet smug turn of phrase, the Women’s Equality Party says one of its goals is to no longer be necessary. Having a member of parliament would be nice, sure, but “the ultimate dream is that we no longer need to exist, because it’s all done,” says Sandi Toksvig, the Great British Bake-Off star who co-founded the political start-up in 2015. 

When equality for women is achieved, so the logic goes, the party’s raison d’être will have disappeared. In the meantime, though, there is the small matter of a general election – and in a first-past-the-post system stacked against smaller parties, WEP has opted for an unusual strategy. Zooming in on one of its seven core objectives, it is focusing its limited resources on ending violence against women and girls.

The approach, which party leader Mandu Reid describes as “guerilla”, has been two-fold. The party is fielding three candidates – all survivors of domestic abuse – in seats where former MPs have been the subject of unresolved allegations of sexual harassment and assault. All three men deny the allegations. In Luton North, where Serena Laidley is standing, Labour’s investigation into former MP Kelvin Hopkins, now retired, has not concluded. In Bury South, where Gemma Evans is standing, former Labour MP Ivan Lewis is now running as an independent. Eljai Morais is standing in Dover, where Charlie Elphicke was the Conservative MP. His wife, Natalie, is now the Conservative candidate. Another two WEP candidates stood aside in the Cities of London and Westminster and Sheffield Hallam, with the party endorsing the Liberal Democrats in those seats because they committed to key WEP policies in their manifesto. Those seats also saw Conservative MP Mark Field – who was filmed manhandling a female climate protester in June – and former Labour MP Jared O’Mara – who had faced sexual misconduct allegations – stand down. 

"We wanted to influence those who hold real power, zooming in on where they fall short on women and using our leverage to give them an option to do better and do right by women," says Reid, who is the first black leader of a political party in the UK. At the same time, the WEP, which allows members to belong to other parties, has crossed the boundary lines of tribal politics to support Rosie Duffield, the lone Labour MP in Kent, herself the survivor of an abusive relationship. "We are at the vanguard of demonstrating how small parties can make a difference," says Reid. "I wouldn't be surprised if other parties copy us, but a better option would be electoral reform."  

On Sunday, WEP activists joined Labour canvassers in Canterbury to drum up support for Duffield, who is defending a majority of 187. In the centre of town, Christmas muzak booming from the nearby Christmas Market, around 100 people gathered for a speedy pre-canvassing rally between a Dorothy Perkins and Cote Brasserie. Alongside the “Re-elect Rosie” banners, the Labour rosettes, the “Canterbury for Rosie” and “Remain for Rosie” badges was the odd badge with “Vote Labia”, a WEP slogan.  

“I wish I hadn’t worn heels,” said Duffield, as she stood on a slatted bench to address an adoring crowd. Alongside Duffield, Reid, Toskvig, and her co-founder, the journalist and author Catherine Mayer, tried to fire things up on a chilly morning. Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, also made an appearance, declaring she was “beginning the part of this rally which is known as the small round women for Rosie".

The WEP says this was the first time it has officially canvassed for another party’s candidate. Not only did they support Duffield because of her “astonishing speech” in parliament in October on coercive control, says Toksvig, but because she has spoken out against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and voted against austerity. “The things she stands for are the very things we want to see represented in parliament,” she says. This election has "totally been portrayed to the whole country as this polarised debate between two of the worst leaders we have ever had in the history of this country, and as if that's it. There are other ways in which we can do this. This is the new way of doing it." 

“Because women are dying,” chief of staff Hannah Peaker says when asked why the party is focusing on this particular issue, in this particular election. “Women are dying at rates that could be stopped right now. Women have done everything that was asked of them. The reporting is up, ‘Me Too’ happened, everyone spoke out, then there was the backlash and now we have cut back on services so, so far that there is no support for them and conviction rates are falling.”

With a line of women having left politics as this election started citing abuse and threats, three years after the murder of Jo Cox, violence against and abuse of women has become an issue in today’s politics. Despite the salience, however, is this cutting through on the doorstep? The Labour Party would not allow the New Statesman to accompany any canvassers on Sunday, but activists from both parties said that ending violence against women wasn’t exactly coming up. “We are focusing on Rosie,” says Tabitha Morton, who was the WEP’s candidate for the 2017 Liverpool mayoral election and now heads More United, another political start-up. “I’ve obviously got my WEP badge on but the point of being here is not to talk about our party, it’s to get a brilliant woman elected.”

In any case, a major challenge for WEP in getting its message across is that most voters haven’t ever heard of it. Despite having 35,000 members across 75 branches, and even getting a local councillor elected in Cheshire’s Congleton East this year, “we are still at the name recognition stage,” says Reid. 

Brexit was the most common issue on the doorstep, activists said. Duffield is an outspoken advocate for Remain in a party whose leadership will not say whether or not it backs leaving the EU. “The narratives in this one are quite confused and you are seeing that on the doorstep here,” says Mayer. “So you are meeting people who are both saying they are voting for Rosie and that they aren’t voting for Rosie because they either think that she will stop Brexit or she won’t. It is confused and polarised.”

Still, Mayer says abuse of women does resonate, adding that some voters are shocked for instance that, under the Recall Act 2015, MPs cannot face recall by constituents unless they are facing a custodial sentence. This means, party activists argue, that voters can recall an MP for “fiddling expenses” but have no recourse in cases where MPs are accused of sexual assault or harassment. “There are many more things that we stand for than the issues of eradicating violence and abuse against women, but that is a huge issue and it’s the one that we can really cut through in this campaign.”

Duffield clearly appreciates the cross-party support. “We absolutely have to work with this party on so many things, particularly for women,” she says in a Cafe Nero after the rally, eager to tuck into a hot chocolate with whipped cream. “I bore everyone to death with this in my speeches, but we are women first then we are party political, and that is an absolute truth in parliament. You know that the minute you are there…I’ve even had conversations with Priti Patel in the ladies’ loo which weren’t that hostile. You find common ground, you just do, you just talk about ‘isn’t this crap’ or ‘why is everybody being so sexist’, or whatever. You find common ground.”

The MP says she tries to push a women’s agenda. “The problem is being the only Kent non-Tory I’ve got to do everything so it’s not as much as I’d like to.” Is Labour the best party for women? “We haven’t done brilliantly, have we, with some of the men who are accused of certain things and not necessarily been dealt with, that’s been a bit of a disappointment, I have to be honest,” she says. “We need to do better, and the more women we get in the better we will do.” She adds that “no major party has done enough for women.” 

The Women’s Equality Party wants to see women’s issues running “like a golden thread” through policy, says Toksvig. But isn’t there a danger that the very existence of a party focused on women risks perpetuating the sidelining of women? "I think it's exactly the opposite," says Mayer. "When we founded the party the very first question we got asked was why don't you just be the equality party and everyone kept trying to change it. It's like no women are always at the back of the queue. We need to be there because the other parties aren't doing it."

Part of the problem, surely, is that despite "Me Too", despite the fact that abuse and threats against women MP’s came up as the election began, the electorate just doesn’t care enough. And so, women remain a side issue. 

“They always have been, darling, and so far that hasn’t changed,” says Toksvig. “We also need male champions, we need the boys to come on side with this.” So is a male WEP candidate part of the answer? “No, I’m not saying that you have to have a penis in order for people to listen, although I will say that anybody, any human being, who wants to stand up for these things is welcome.”

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.