Sophie Walker on “making politics about women”

Will Tilbrook 6 November 2016

When I met the leader of the Women’s Equality Party over, scattered on the table were leaflets for their current campaign ‘What Women Want’. Serving as a follow-up to a similar campaign in 1996 as well as a crowdsourcing exercise for this relatively young political party to determine what its electoral base is looking for, I ask party leader Sophie Walker what she wants?

One of the things she wants for the WEP is an intersectional approach.

“Let me be very clear: the Women’s Equality Party aims to represent all women. Because women are not a homogeneous mass, and we can’t be effective as a political party unless we represent the diversity of all women’s experiences.” However, while recognising the WEP’s need to be representative, she is proud of its success in this area, explaining how the What Women Want campaign intends to increase appeal to different communities of women, BME women in particular.

Her belief in progressiveness for her party is clear. She explained why she thinks party politics is the way forward for women. “It’s only when you threaten the votes of the other political parties that they will actually do anything about it. There have been pressure groups and organisations aplenty over the last 20, 30 years, and they are brilliant and many of them are doing exceptional work, but they don’t get listened to, ultimately. They get listened to up to a certain point, and then it’s a ‘thank you very much, goodbye’.

“I think that you only have to look at the events of 23 June to see the impact a very small political party can have right through the whole political landscape. What we are aiming to do with this is to get our agenda to the top of everyone else’s agenda by doing the same thing that UKIP did, by doing the same thing that the Greens did. Once you put an electoral force around your agenda, it forces the other parties to sit up and listen. And I really want to challenge the idea that our votes somehow already belong to the other political parties. They don’t, they really don’t – they have to earn them.” She adds to this by talking about the barriers to women in the current political system.

"There is a major problem when men outnumber women 2:1 in the House of Commons,” she says flatly. “It was very funny, we went to the Electoral Commission after the campaigns in spring and asked them about childcare support, and whether it counts as election spending, because you have to tally it up, and they didn’t know what the answer was because nobody in the history of politics has ever offered childcare support before. To me, that absolutely blew my mind.”

On top of this, she thinks that women are disenchanted with politics on an ideological level. “One of the really essential things we can do to get women into politics is to start making politics about women, to start putting a gendered lens on all the policy work we do, to say ‘there’s 50% of the population here that we’re not seeing and we’re not hearing, we have to listen to them’. And that combination of practical support and lifting those structural barriers, and creating a movement for change that reflects our lives, will I hope go a significant way to changing that.”

Ultimately, what she wants is the ability to collaborate in creating a better future. “A good thing that’s come out of the referendum is a statement from the electorate that they want politics to be done differently. This is an opportunity for politicians who want things to be done diff erently, to properly represent the needs of the electorate. They’re tired of old-fashioned slugging it out politics. Nobody enjoys that and it doesn’t achieve anything. We are far better when we all work together.”