WHAT IS THE ROLE OF A FEMINIST PARTY IN THE UK ELECTORAL SYSTEM?
The Women’s Equality Party is now two years’ old, we are approaching the anniversary of our first conference – an inspiring gathering of 1500 women in Manchester talking about how to bring about equality. Women are more than 50% of our population, they have been impacted to an unfair degree by the policies of austerity which followed the economic crash of 2008. Their jobs have been cut, they are having to bear additional caring burdens, their support services are no longer funded and many face a retirement of poverty. Increasingly girls are in the majority in universities and the professions, yet at the higher levels – those with the real power – they remain in a minority, as careers stall when they become mothers.
However the majority of women do not identify as feminists, they may agree with the principles and policies of a feminist agenda, but they often see these issues in terms of class or ethnic identity. And in the recent General Election the 7 WEP candidates failed to make an impact. There was some media coverage of the leader Sophie Walker’s campaign against the misogynist MP Conservative Philip Davies. But there was also a great deal of criticism from fellow progressives, including other feminists.
The WEP founders stated that they wanted to be the party that abolished itself and have encouraged other parties to adopt their policies. So why stand against Labour MPs – including feminist women and why split the progressive opposition vote against a Conservative Party which has targeted women and was asking for endorsement of a ‘hard’ Brexit – which it is argued will remove many social provisions?
Unlike the rest of Europe there can be little hope in the UK for a small, new political party, under the first-past-the-post system smaller parties are disadvantaged and the last election confirmed we are in a two party system. Many votes are wasted in safe seats and it has even been argued that as few as 2,500 votes in marginal seats decided the result in 2017. The fate of the Liberal Party, and even of UKIP, shows that even with a long history or a popular issue, a small party is electorally doomed.
So what is the future for WEP?
Firstly the branch network must be strengthened – recruitment is a priority targeting potential activists and supporters outside the current white, middle class ghetto. It is working class and women of colour who are bearing the brunt of austerity and the party must reach them.
Secondly a media strategy which seems to target the coffee shops of Hoxton must be re-assessed. WEP needs to reach women of all ages through their own media – an interview in Saga for retired people would have a great deal more impact than the niche Holborn magazine targeting lovers of artisan coffee. Branches must also become prominent in their local media.
Thirdly, the party claims to be non-partisan, it cannot afford to be exclusive. It must reach out to other progressive organisations and to groups of women who are not political. They should also work with all levels of power to effectively represent the views of women – in local government, business and the voluntary sectors. And some of the potential alliances which were damaged by the electoral strategy must be re-built.
Stella Creasey showed what women MPs can achieve by working together and Labour women have now pledged to co-operate as a bloc and with other progressives. WEP must also really reach out to all women. WE cannot only be the voice of white professional women – we must speak to those who are alienated from politics. Where are the women speaking for the disabled, migrants and the retired, for grandmothers working to support two generations of their family, for women who fear that their sons will never get a decent job and that their own wages stagnate in the face of rising prices? There are strong and capable women working to support their own communities and WE must give them a political voice.
Labour increased its vote by articulating a new story that resonated with people’s real lives and experiences. WEP cannot hope to be an electoral force under the present electoral and political system. To fulfil the role of a pressure group for equality it must tell women’s stories and win for the unrepresented a seat at the table where the decisions are made.