Sandi Toksvig is an optimist. To explain why the Women’s Equality Party took flight so fast, she alighted on the metaphor of birds knowing to peck through milk bottle tops. The collective impulse for a feminist party was already in the air. We simply gave voice to that impulse.
She’s right. From the moment we proposed the party, people flocked to join not so much with a sense of starting something new but of continuing the unfinished work of generations. They are surprised not that the party exists but that it took until 2015 for it to come into being. The party recently marked the centenary of the first partial suffrage for women in the UK by projecting a series of messages on to the Houses of Parliament that spoke to this understanding—and the urgent need not only to make more progress but to defend the rights and protections those earlier generations believed they had secured.
I too am an optimist—I believe in the possibility of politics to effect transformational change. I believe that the Women's Equality Party will achieve its goals because its policy platform, and the world it aims to build, serves everyone better. Even so, if I think about the fledgling party—just three years old on March 2nd—I worry about its vulnerabilities. I think about that extraordinary footage in Blue Planet of sooty tern chicks learning to fly and to feed, while attempting to evade the jaws of giant trevallies.
The political ecosystems of the UK are fraught with risks for newcomers. A system designed for stability instead defends the flawed status quo. First-past-the-post voting for Westminster and most local elections in England and Wales favours incumbents and makes it extraordinarily expensive to campaign. (Give the Women's Equality Party the funding and watch it soar!) Rules meant to ensure broadcaster impartiality during election campaigns instead exclude the Women’s Equality Party, the Green Party and other smaller parties from many broadcasts, while continuing to splatter the death throes of UKIP across screens and airwaves. Media attitudes to women and “women’s issues” layer on the difficulties.
That the Women’s Equality Party continues to grow and to make its mark is down to the strength of the collective impulse Sandi and I tapped into—and to the skill and ingenuity of the people who gave form to that collective impulsive. There are many but the most prominent of these is Sophie Walker.
I invited her to speak at the first meeting to discuss the feasibility of setting up a party. She talked about shared parenting and her personal experiences as a working mother struggling to get support for her eldest daughter Grace, whose Asperger’s Syndrome went undiagnosed for years, in part because the condition is assumed not to affect girls.
Sophie joined the ad hoc steering committee that emerged from that meeting, worked around the clock to build the party and eventually allowed herself to be persuaded to take on leadership of the party after a unanimous vote by the steering committee. This meant stepping away not only from the security of a salaried position at Reuters but from a career at which she excelled to start afresh, as a complete novice.
There are jobs that can be learned slowly and in privacy. Leading a political party is not one of them. It helped that Sophie started with a strategic brain and a real gift for public speaking, whether in media appearances, in vast conference halls or from improvised platforms at marches and events. She made everything look easy but nothing came easy. Indeed the toll has been great, the stress considerable.
She has twice combined her leadership role with running for elected office. In the London Mayoral elections, she made a huge and immediate impact (at times it sounded as if Sadiq Khan had swallowed our manifesto) and attracted 5.2% of the vote, easily beating George Galloway (hurrah). At the snap General Election, she stood in Shipley to oust Philip Davies, attracting not only animus from his supporters but from some sections of the local Labour party, who until Sophie’s candidacy had all but given up on the seat. Accusing her of vote-splitting rather than galvanising the anti-Davies vote as she clearly did—his majority halved—they attacked her online and in person as she knocked doors and participated in hustings. Her boots wore through and so, briefly, did her composure after another long weekend of campaigning when her husband set off back to London with their youngest daughter, Betty.
She stuck with the campaigning as she stuck with the job of leader because she is passionate about the potential of the Women’s Equality Party to make a difference—something which, to a significant degree thanks to Sophie, it has already started to do, modelling a new way of doing politics, driving vital issues higher up the political agenda and infiltrating its policies into the manifestos of other parties.
Even so, I considered not endorsing Sophie in the forthcoming party leadership elections, for several reasons. One is that I am wary of taking up space within the party or of fostering the misapprehension that it is Sandi's and my party. We started it, we serve on its committee but above all we are proud, private members. It is as private member that I back Sophie.
It has been clear from the outset that the Women’s Equality Party must continually work to expand its range of voices and perspectives, to bring those voices and perspectives to policy-making and to launch them into the political space. I have been delighted to see the calibre of candidates who put themselves forward to represent the party at every electoral contest in which we have participated, and I was pleased to see the excellent Magda Devas running against Sophie for the leadership and putting forward her own vision of what the party could do and be. Magda, an activist for all of her adult life, is the co-leader of her local Women's Equality Party branch. I salute her and applaud her campaign. If only politics more often looked like this: vibrant women respectfully challenging each other's ideas and approach while finding common cause.
But as we continue to mark centenaries this year, of the right for women to run for Westminster and of the first woman elected to the Commons, we see not only that change happens but how slowly, and how fragile progress can be. I decided to back Sophie not because of how much she has already done for the party, but because of her vision for the future and the skills and knowledge she has acquired through the process that seem to me essential to securing the party's progress. The Women’s Equality Party, this glorious fledgling party, needs the best possible chance to thrive so that women can thrive, so that everyone thrives. I believe Sophie is that chance.