An Open Letter to Count Binface
Dear Binface, if I may,
The other night, I suffered something of a meltdown on Facebook when I noticed that an old friend had endorsed your candidacy for London Mayor. It wasn’t that I believed his endorsement to be any more serious than your candidacy, but it showed you were getting what communications strategists call “cut-through”. Voters know about your campaign, and that’s an essential first step to winning their votes.
My London postal ballots had arrived earlier that day. There are three ballots, all clogged with names you’ve never heard of or wish you hadn’t. The pale orange ballot for the London Assembly lists 18 different parties in alphabetical order, including more than a few that sound as if they’ve been invented by you—or, in the following brain-teaser, by me, to prove my point. See if you can guess which one of these four isn’t really on the orange ballot: “Let London Live”, “Londependence”, “London Real Party” or “Londonuts”.
The last and most important option on the ballot is the Women’s Equality Party. Ever since I co-founded WEP in 2015, gripped by a sense of urgency not only to speed progress but to defend hard-won women’s rights and protections threatened by rising populism, people have urged us to restyle ourselves as the Equality Party. A man once offered me a great big wodge of cash if I’d guarantee that WEP would change our name, ditch the bitch, as it were. This neatly demonstrates why WEP is needed. Gendered discrimination intersects with and intensifies pretty much every other inequality but always, somehow, the needs and interests of half of the population are pushed to the back of the queue. And that’s bad news for everyone because no society can truly flourish if women and girls are denied the opportunity to thrive.
Even so, looking at the pale orange ballot, I am gripped by a sudden regret. Imagine if I’d taken the loot and dropped the word “Women” from the party name. We’d appear a lot higher up the ballot paper. I fear voters will lose the will to live before they ever find us in this morass of names.
Politics is a funny old business—and I’m lucky enough that my co-founder, Sandi Toksvig, is one of the funniest women alive. We spend a lot of time laughing at the absurdity of the world our activism has forced us to inhabit. We also wonder why you put so much effort into satirising it when it does such a good job by itself. Look at the anti-foreigner parties across the world awash in illegal foreign donations.
Can you think of one week of Boris Johnson’s venal, destructive reign that hasn’t lurched into the blackest of bleak, black comedy? I speak, by the way, as a recent widow and campaigner with the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK, whose representatives Johnson refuses to meet and whose miraculous Memorial Wall, directly across the river from Westminster, he has yet to visit. There are 150,000 hearts on the Wall, each representing one of the UK Covid dead. There’s nothing remotely amusing about this loss, its scale or the fact that a significant proportion of these deaths were preventable, but every fresh revelation about corrupt and disastrous procurement processes, whether for PPE or ventilators, reads as if it were scripted by Armando Iannucci. And there is always black humour in death. When I called the funeral home to pay for my beloved’s cremation, the man in the accounts department ran through my credit card details. “Expiry date?”, he demanded. For a moment I didn’t know if he meant my husband’s or the card’s. He mistook my muffled laughter for sobs.
Humour can be a potent ingredient in political messaging too; just watch WEP’s wry party political broadcast, co-scripted by Killing Eve’s Luke Jennings. You too drank at the Killing Eve well in issuing your own manifesto promise to rename London Bridge after Phoebe Waller. Yet I’ll admit it. Right now I’m suffering a sense of humour failure about the May 6 elections.
When I flipped at the sight of my friend’s Facebook post about you, I’d just learned that Christopher Killick, a convicted sex offender, is standing in the Hartlepool by-election triggered by the departure of Labour MP Mike Hill, who is facing a tribunal over allegations of harassment and victimisation. Labour suspended Hill when the allegations—which he denies—first surfaced, but then miraculously reinstated him in time to contest the last general election. Our candidate in Hartlepool, Gemma Evans, is herself a survivor of violence. Her first thought on hearing of Killick’s candidacy was for the impact of his candidacy on the woman whom Killick filmed unconscious and naked, without her consent.
Last week, leading organisations in the women’s sector held the only hustings of this London Mayoral election cycle to focus on violence against women and girls. After last month’s abduction and murder of Sarah Everard, and with the clarion voice of Mina Smallman, mother of murder victims Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry, ringing in our ears, politicians rushed to proclaim ending violence against women and girls their top priority. So much for that. Only one Mayoral candidate of those invited to the hustings turned up to participate in the live debate—WEP’s marvellous leader Mandu Reid, incidentally the first woman of colour ever to lead a UK political party. The other candidates sent recorded messages and proxies. When a WEP campaign staffer suggested to journalists that their news organisations might wish to cover the no-shows, one reporter replied: “media interest can be fleeting in these things”. No more so than politicians’ interest. I can only hope and trust that voters have longer memories.
I can only hope and trust that voters will put their cross next to the Women’s Equality Party in the wards and constituencies in England and Scotland where we are standing. What matters most to me, though, is that Londoners give us their votes on the pale orange ballot for the London Assembly, because this is, frankly, the seat we have the best chance of winning.
It would be nice if they voted for Mandu for Mayor, but we know that Sadiq Khan’s lead is unassailable and that, in itself, is a bad thing. Politics functions best when there is strong opposition and better still when that opposition is not a monolith but a plurality of voices and perspectives. Khan has talked up a storm as Mayor of London and delivered precious little. We want to win a seat in the London Assembly to help hold him to account and to advance our transformative platform. We want to win a seat in the London Assembly as a declaration that politicians and media’s focus on keeping women and girls safe may wander, but the public’s doesn’t.
In other circumstances, I’d be bullish about our chances. The proportional voting system used in the London elections and other Metro Mayor contests as well as for Police and Crime Commissioners gives WEP and other, smaller parties such as the Greens a much better chance of success than the First Past the Post voting on which general elections are decided. First Past the Post favours incumbents and the status quo. That’s why Priti Patel recently announced an end to this system. If the Government gets its way—and, with its hefty parliamentary majority, it’s hard to see how it won’t—these will be the last London Mayoral and Assembly elections that won’t be a stitch-up between the big old parties.
So it’s urgent that we win this time round, and a recent opinion poll for The Times suggested we would, with 14% of women surveyed planning to vote for WEP. In the 2016 elections, our first ever electoral race, WEP got nearly a quarter of a million votes in London, within tantalising sight of an Assembly seat. Yet the coming elections are unfurling in very different and difficult circumstances, delayed by a year because of the pandemic, and with campaigning restricted for safety reasons to methods such as paid advertising that favour candidates with much bigger budgets than ours. On top of that, factor in all the noise and distraction of joke candidates and the attendant confusion between those candidates and small parties such as WEP that actually do the painstaking work of building movements, developing detailed policy, fostering activism and creating grassroots change.
I don’t mean to single you out for criticism. Reading through the ballot choices for London Mayor and given my disappointment with Khan, you are by no means the least attractive option for my second preference vote. Far from it, indeed. You’re properly funny and god knows we all need light relief after this year of profound loss. Moreover, unlike quite a few of your rivals, you mean to laugh with voters rather than at them. The problem, though, with satirising politics is that you risk encouraging voters to think there is no point to activism, no possibility of change. The Women’s Equality Party proves otherwise. Rising violence against women and girls shows just how urgent our mission is.
And so I ask you like another Tin Man before you to demonstrate your heart by supporting a woman on a mission. I know it won’t be easy for you to get a serious message across, but I also don’t doubt your ability to do it. Please use your platform to encourage Londoners to vote for us.
Co-founder and president, Women's Equality Party
Leafletting with Mandu and Sandi, April 2021
© Words and image Catherine Mayer 2021