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A Political First: The Remarkable Women's Equality Party Conference

10/01/2017 17:11

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Less than two years after it was created, the Women's Equality Party (slogan: "Because equality is better for everyone") is holding its first-ever conference in Manchester - home of the suffragettes. Having become co-leader of the Camden branch, and having chalked up three months of working at the WE head office on press, policy and campaigns, I have some inside-track knowledge of how it's all going to come together.

Meanwhile I wouldn't have my 11-year-old daughter miss it for the world. In my letter requesting that she skip school for one day, I sell it as a chance for her to witness the driving principles behind this new mainstream political party and movement for change. I explain that Dare will be privy to decision-making, the passing of policy motions, workshops, debate. This will be history in the making, and it is important to me that my daughter be there in Manchester to take it all in.

By 5.30pm on 25 November 2016 the Victoria Warehouse - an atmospheric, ex-industrial space with dramatically lit exposed brickwork - is slowly thronging with people. Rivalling the attendance of the Green Party conference, some 1,500 tickets were sold - proportionally a high ratio, compared to other political parties, of conference-goers to WE's 65,000 members and supporters.

The main hall, massive and incredibly high, resounds with loud music. The mood is positive, good-humoured, full of infectious energy and a desire to acknowledge the achievements of a party that has come so far in so little time.

Introducing the first speakers is Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre - it was there, at the 2015 WOW (Women of the World) festival, that presenter Sandi Toksvig and journalist Catherine Mayer put forward the idea of a non-partisan political party with gender equality as its aim - the only one in the world, as Toksvig often says, "that hopes one day not to exist".

After the screening of a three-minute film about WE's exponential rise, party leader Sophie Walker takes the stage. Gracious and formidable, she begins her emphatic speech by easing into an anecdote about how their hotel rooms had been reserved under "Mr Women's Equality Party".

Heart-rendingly, the names of the women in the UK who have been killed by men since 2012 (as collated by the Counting Dead Women project) are scrolling on the screen behind her in honour of this being International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

In fact - just beyond the Marketplace with its exhibitors' stalls and the street-food area lined with picnic benches - a red phone box is in place from which conference-goers can call their MPs and lobby them to vote on holding the government to its promise to ratify the Istanbul Convention, an important step in ending violence against women. Throughout the weekend hundreds of people place calls - and in Parliament on 16 December 2016 this initiative secures an overwhelming 135 to 2 majority.

Next up, spoken word artist Justina Kehinde delivers a strong, evocative piece on equality. Then WE co-founder Catherine Mayer stirringly lays out the implications for women of Trump's election and pays tribute to how inspired she'd been by her stepsister standing for Parliament as a Lib Dem.

Spot on, vehement and engaging, Sandi Toksvig gives a comical Powerpoint presentation delving into how only three of the 55 entries in "crowdsourced" Wikipedia on this day in history are about women. Slipping into a tuxedo jacket, she has the entire audience rise to conduct the last minutes of Beethoven's Ninth.

Then she sets out a box of Lego for the open-mic session, WE Voices, so that each person delivering their three-minute piece can add a block to make a collective Lego construction, just as WE is building towards great things.

Having offered to accompany anyone terrified to brave it on their own, Toksvig brings onto the stage one woman who ends up speaking beautifully about how hard it is talking to her father about gender equality, and then - movingly - that woman later accompanies a young woman with stage fright.

In fascinating succession women address the rapt, encouraging crowd. They come up to air grievances, talk about what motivates them, tell their story. For example:

  1. the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst introduces herself, and it is fortifying to imagine, through her standing there live, the continuity of suffragette ideals
  2. a domestic violence survivor and mother-of-two mentions her book, White Sorrow
  3. an Asian woman speaks about not being a WE member because of its lack of diversity (and yes, ethnic minorities in the crowd are in the vast minority)
  4. a mother explains how, having at age five worn jeans rather than her uniform skirt, she then fought for her daughter to wear cycling shorts under her uniform skirt and forced the school to acknowledge sexual bullying when her young daughter was called a slut
  5. a woman in real estate in her mid-30s expresses concern about there being no developments in the pipeline for soon-to-be-elderly women to live in care homes
  6. Harini Iyengar, a lawyer, talks about the lack of women in the top judiciary and the need to fight for quotas
  7. a woman who, as she speaks, shifts her baby onto her shoulders says she joined WE not for herself but for her daughter

I know what she means. I look over at Dare. To deflect boredom she's by default often on her phone - but part of my exposing an 11-year-old to this political environment means my having to adapt to her coping mechanisms. So what if accommodating her need to sleep in means that we won't show up at the conference first thing tomorrow morning. So what if I have to swap my leather boots for her red Converse because it's so cold there's frost out. So what if we're buying Krispy Kreme doughnuts for breakfast. It makes me reframe my sense of compromise into one of collaboration. I'm happy to meet her where she is, because she's come a long way in meeting my wish for her to be here.

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Day two

Saturday begins with debates and discussions all across the old warehouse. The main venue hosts a cross-party panel discussion on collaborative working. Committed to "doing politics differently" (another of its key catchphrases), the Women's Equality Party has, uniquely, invited representatives of other political parties to its conference - Nicky Morgan from the Tories, Lib Dem peer Sal Brinton and Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack, who get a standing ovation. "A political first," comments one delegate. "Magic." Labour is absent. Similarly, although major TV and print media had agreed to come, there is almost zero press coverage.

Dare and I have a second-row vantage onto the podium, where Gudrun Schyman - founder and co-leader of Sweden's influential independent feminist party the Feministiskt Initiativ - speaks compellingly, reassuringly, about the challenges of carving a path towards gender-equality politics.

For over 45 minutes Sophie Walker gives a powerful, heartfelt leaderership speech critiquing our current system and putting forth viable economic alternatives; she is in tears when talking about how her daughter with autism spurs her on. Memorably she says she wants "girls of every race to be able to see themselves in the past, be themselves in the present and free themselves in the future".

There is a lot on the agenda. Long queues for the workshops form down the rough-walled corridors that are lined with outfits by fashion students at Salford University.

The Festival of Ideas incorporates such talks led by guest speakers as:

  • rethinking education
  • misogyny as a hate crime
  • changing the abortion debate in Northern Ireland
  • the portrayal of women in advertising
  • the politics of migration, race and gender

Meanwhile the breakout debates and workshop topics include:

  • the gendered impact of climate change
  • reforming societal infrastructures
  • trans awareness
  • universal childcare
  • disability and gender
  • sexual harassment and violence in universities
  • a session called simply "Living in a man's world: the survivor's guide"

We opt for the workshop "Whose movement is it anyway? Building an anti-racist feminist politics". Confronting privilege, BME issues, the invisibility of black women, how the term "women" should often be qualified as "white women", the dynamic WE members and supporters officer Priscilla Mensah sets out to make participants question their assumptions, feel uncomfortable.

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"Mobilisation: building a movement for change", run by WE chief of staff Hannah Peaker and WE political campaigns coordinator Rachel Statham, emphasises the power of telling a personal story and of canvassing on the doorstep.

That evening, before the music and dancing till late, Sandi Toksvig comperes the WE FUNdraiser - a (rare) line-up of five female comedians headlined by the captivating Sara Pascoe.

Dare and I grab an Uber back to our Airbnb flat - it's located in an area of urban renewal in the high-concept Chips building, so called because it looks like three elongated horizontal chips. A fan of chips, Dare approves.

Day three

Party business begins at 9am on Sunday. The level of professionalism is impressive, and so is the fact that a large audience stays to the end and that so many delegates take the podium to speak to the 20 policy motions, both for and against, which include:

  • strengthening the law against revenge porn
  • a gender audit for schools
  • weight discrimination in the fashion industry
  • parental leave for the self-employed
  • proportional representation
  • making sure Brexit doesn't turn back the clock on gender equality
  • the What Women Want 2.0 campaign which reactivated a nationwide survey done in 1996
  • the decision to make equal healthcare the party's seventh core objective (alongside equal pay, equal representation, better portrayal in the media, equal education, affordable childcare and ending violence against women and girls)

By close of play the mood is jubilant - that makes it sound triumphalist, but it isn't: it's more pride at having attended a party conference that has been, as many people have spontaneously commented, unlike any other.

Throughout the weekend there has been a prevailing sense of good will, supportiveness, responsiveness, respect. People who'd come on their own are easily drawn into conversation. It has felt remarkable to be in a large, amiable crowd of predominantly women, and to spend time with people who are willing this movement into being with their commitment, input, fervent conviction.

This chance to gather together, debate and celebrate is an assured first step only 18 months after the Women's Equality Party - having ignited recognition in so many people eager for change - became a revolutionary reality.

We shoulder our bags, my daughter and I. We're heading home.

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