Women's Equality Party leader: "We aim to push ourselves out of business"

Sophie Walker talks diversity, austerity, and why equality isn't a zero-sum game. 

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The Women’s Equality Party is rushed off its feet. When I meet the party’s leader, journalist and campaigner Sophie Walker, for a chat, I’m given 18 minutes to speak with her – which, according to my dictaphone recording, actually pans out as more like 14.

Walker meets me fresh from the release of a statement on Sadiq Khan’s election as Labour’s mayoral candidate for London, which notes: “It is disappointing that the Labour party has nominated a man to the post”. The statement would be echoed by another on Saturday, saying roughly the same thing about Jeremy Corbyn’s appointment as Labour leader. The tone of these releases mirrors the party’s view of its role in politics: to hammer home the same messages on gender equality again and again, until something actually changes. “We don’t care how equality is achieved,” Walker says at two different points in our conversation. “We just want it to happen.”

This stance sheds light on why the party’s founders, journalists Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer, decided to create a party rather than a pressure group when they realised earlier this year that something must be done to improve life and representation for women in Britain. As Walker tells me now: “There’s a long history of extremely effective women’s groups getting these kinds of issues heard. But they didn’t get actioned. The only way we think we can bring about real change on these issues is by being an electoral force.”

In short: start threatening other parties’ voteshare, and they might actually start doing what you ask. The Women's Equality party (WE) has established six “core goals” in conversation with its members: equal representation in politics, business and media; equal education; equal pay and work; equal parenting; a reevaluation of women’s portrayals in the media; and an end to violence against women. It will also release more specific policy goals in mid-October.

WE will also stand candidates (who could be any gender) in both local and general elections to further these goals, but will only have a party line on issues that directly pertain to their policy and core goals - councillors or MPs could vote however they wanted on other issues. Equally, if the  Labour party, for example, agrees to deliver WE's policies and goals, the party would not stand candidates against them. That’s why, as Walker explains, “We’re the only political party whose ultimate aim is to push ourselves out of business”.

The party is already in talks with representatives from most of the major parties, though Walker tells me these are at a “very, very early stage”. WE would work with any party committed to delivering their policies, and is avowedly non-partisan. “What we want is for other parties to take these on and get them done,” says. In this sense, the party is a strange hybrid of political party and pressure group: it will enter politics to further its goals, but aims not to execute them itself. Members of other parties are welcome, and indeed encouraged to join - but this can backfire, as it did for WE members who were not allowed to vote in Labour's leadership contest. 

So how are things going so far? There are currently 63 local branches in England, Scotland, Wales and one in Northern Ireland, and members and supporters numbering somewhere north of 30,000 (the party have not yet released an official number, but Walker tells me that membership “broke all our initial targets” at launch). The oldest is 91; the youngest 14. Walker says the party does not have data on its members’ political affiliations, but in her anecdotal experience so far, “[different political positions] seem fairly well represented”.

Walker herself has travelled the country to visit different branches : “I've been out meeting people from Sheffield, Manchester, Brighton, Liverpool, Chesterfield, and Edinburgh and Glasgow. I think I had only met one London branch before our London event this week”. She assures me that the party is doing everything it can to reach out to a diverse range of people, despite the London-centric, white-dominated demographics of the party’s founding members, most of whom are journalists. The party is also keen to stress its interest in other groups passed over by mainstream politics, and how their concerns intersect. “We are proudly targetting women's equality but we also recognise that there are people who are doubly and trebly disadvantaged by race, and by disability. We don't see equality as a zero sum game,” says Walker.

The next challenge is policy. As anyone remotely involved in feminism knows, there are certain topics which can divide even the most united of campaign groups: stances on sex work and trans issues, for example. Walker won’t speak about either yet, but promises both - plus the party’s working definition of “woman” - will be covered in the party’s October policy launch, following consultation with party members. 

I also ask Walker how the party will tackle topics like austerity, which may not seem directly related to women's equality, but in fact heavily impact women's lives. Her response: 

"We want to get to the root causes of why certain areas of the population are more disadvantaged than others when it comes to austerity and benefit cuts. We want to look at why, for example, two thirds of the poorest people in Britain are women. Why they are in lower paid jobs and more likely to work part-time. We want to cut through the political conversation and get to the causes." 

Until we know its policies, it's hard to know quite how the party will proceed, and what impact it will have. For now, though, it represents an interesting proposition: a cross-party threat to a political establishment which, at present, seems happy to leave women's equality on the back burner.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.