By Doris Honold
“Every time I get up and challenge the status quo, it feels like an act of rebellion against the self-doubt I, and most women and girls, have been taught since childhood.” Mandu Reid
The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) is the United Kingdom’s first and only feminist political party. It was launched in 2015 under the rallying cry - ‘The Women’s Equality Party needs you. But probably not as much as you need the Women’s Equality Party’ - and was designed to make gender equality a reality for everyone.
The party’s first policy manifesto was launched by its then leader, Sophie Walker, who used the manifesto to articulate what needed to change and how to do it in order to realize the WEP’s very ambitious mission.
Four years later, in April 2019, Mandu Reid took the helm as party leader. She became the first person of color to lead a national political party in British history. Reid has a background of working in government, having previously worked for the last three Mayors of London covering a wide range of projects and policy areas, including the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, community sport, environmental policy, transport initiatives and youth crime.
In 2019, she was recognized by Apolitical as one of the top 100 most influential people in global gender policy, alongside women such as Michelle Obama, Melinda Gates and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The party’s mission statement opens with: “Equality for women isn’t a women’s issue. When women fulfil their potential and thrive, everyone benefits. Equality means better politics, a more vibrant economy, a workforce that draws on the talents of the whole population and a society at ease with itself.”
The WEP is unique because it has a completely unambiguous focus on equality between men and women. Gender equality is not a footnote for party members; it is not an afterthought or a bargaining chip. It is the core of their purpose and they are steadfast behind it.
The party is focused on seven policy goals:
- Equal representation in politics and business;
- Equal pay;
- Equal parenting rights and caregiving;
- Equal education;
- Equal treatment of women by and in the media;
- Equal healthcare; and
- Ending violence against women and girls.
The WEP doesn’t aim to solve anything else and will not develop policies on any other issues. As a result, the party is often accused of being “both too ambitious and not ambitious enough.” But those criticisms have not stopped the party from choosing its own path and defining success on its own terms.
One of the starkest differences is that the party does not try to accumulate power or hold on to it forever. If the seven policy goals are achieved - and society reaches a state of gender equality - the party will no longer be needed. That is a very different philosophy from traditional political parties, which often see the survival of the party as a goal in itself.
This philosophy also has allowed the WEP to apply very different campaign tactics. One WEP strategy is to announce candidates early, which forces the established political parties to respond, usually by nominating more women in constituencies where the WEP stands in the hope of neutralizing the effect of a female WEP candidate on the ballot. This approach has resulted in established parties putting more women on the ballot just because WEP’s candidates appear on the ballot. This way, women are winning even before a single vote is cast - and driving progress to one of the party’s goals: equal representation.
While only five years old, the WEP already has succeeded in creating a vibrant and growing movement. It has more than 35,000 members and registered supporters, and 70 branches across the UK. In 2019, it won its first local election seat.
The WEP does not have a copyright on its manifesto and policies. Quite the opposite, it shares them with all established parties. To the WEP, every improvement in gender equality is a win and every elected woman is a victory. By this definition, the party has won in every election in which it has participated.
In last year’s general election, the WEP deployed an unprecedented targeted guerrilla strategy. The election was a one-topic election, focusing only on BREXIT. It was apparent that it would be challenging to compete with the established parties. As a result, the WEP decided to campaign on something it genuinely cares about - the widespread problem of sexual harassment across the political spectrum. The party targeted five Members of Parliament who had unresolved allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault or violence against women on their records and whose respective parties had so far failed to ‘conclude the investigations.’
The WEP put up five candidates in each of the constituents of the five MPs. And they were not just any Women Equality Party candidates; they were all survivors of sexual assault or domestic abuse. The candidates felt it was incredibly empowering not only to be able to share their stories, but to use them in this way.
“By standing against MPs who have been accused of sexual harassment, it puts out a message that we are not willing to accept this in the higher echelons of politics,” Reid said at the time. “How can we make a change if that change does not start in Westminster?”
The campaign received significant media coverage and raised the profile of an issue that was perceived to have been brushed under the carpet by the political establishment for a long time. The end result was that not a single one of the targeted MPs returned to Parliament. While none of the WEP candidates won a seat, it was still a win for the party and women more generally. The campaign and subsequent changes in Parliament was a major step forward in the public policy goal of ending violence against women and girls.
In addition, recently a bill that demands an independent and robust process for how sexual harassment complaints are handled has gone through Parliament. WEP’s campaign undoubtedly paved the way for this long overdue change.
At a time when trust in politics is at a historic low, the Women’s Equality Party has succeeded in creating a movement that has shown that politics can work and that there is a different way. Eighty percent of WEP members have never been members of a political party before. Reid proudly declares: “The women that have become part of WEP’s movement have found their voice, they have found power, and they have found each other.”
At this stage of the party’s journey, its focus is on attracting people who believe change is necessary and who want to see it happen. This includes men as well as women. Currently, about 9% of new party members are men, a number that continues to increase. The WEP welcomes men with open arms, stating that men should want to join the party out of naked self-interest.
Looking to the future, the Women’s Equality Party’s response to the COVID-19 crisis is “Build Back Equal,” a campaign demanding a care-led recovery. While the UK’s government response is primarily focused on investment in traditional infrastructure, the WEP is demanding investment in UK’s social infrastructure.
The coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on women. A report from the World Economic Forum cites three main reasons:
- Women comprise the majority of health and social care workers and are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19;
- Mass school closures have particularly affected women because they still bear much of the responsibility for child care; and
- Women already do three-times as much unpaid care work than men - and caring for relatives with the virus adds to the burden.
Reid cites the work of the Women’s Budget Group (a collective of celebrated economists and social policy experts in the UK): At current wages, investment in child care and social care could create two million jobs - 2.7 times as many as would be created with the same investment in construction.
“Funding for child care - and the caring economy more generally - is not a cost but a valuable investment that would boost our economy,” Reid says. “Not only by creating jobs in the sector but also enabling more parents to go back to work.”
There is no better way to kick start the economy and to make it resilient to future pandemics than to invest in a functioning care sector.
“In the early days of lockdown, some referred to the coronavirus pandemic as ‘the great leveler’ because, in theory, rich and poor alike were equally vulnerable to it,” says Reid. However, it has been clear to Reid from the outset that the pandemic is, in fact, ‘the great revealer’ - revealing and exacerbating societal inequalities, hitting hardest those who are poorest and live in the most precarious circumstances. The fact that the vast majority of them are women is not lost on Reid.
“Time and time again we have seen women omitted from or disadvantaged by the Government’s response,” she says. “From day one, the Women’s Equality Party has been highlighting the impact on women and the most vulnerable, whose experiences would otherwise be overlooked. We have and will continue to demand better pay and protections for frontline staff, emergency measures for women trapped at home with their abusers, reproductive and human rights to be upheld during lockdown, and financial support for those who need it.”
The Women’s Equality Party is determined to always call out the worst and try to bring out the best in the other political parties - in pursuit of its ultimate goal: A world where women and girls are truly equal citizens to men and boys.
Because equality is better for everyone...
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