“If you lot want to get elected, join a proper party.”
These were the words directed at the me and my Women’s Equality Party colleagues last year by a female ex-Cabinet minister at a training workshop focused on getting more women into government. Needless to say, they weren’t quite the words of encouragement we were hoping for.
But last week, those colleagues and I proved once and for all that the Women’s Equality Party is a ‘proper party’ and that it’s here to stay - we beat the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats and gained the support of 33% of voters to secure our party’s first ever council seat, in Congleton, Cheshire East. Meanwhile in Tunbridge Wells we stormed into second place, overtaking the Conservatives who previously held the seat, while in Brighton we recruited the support of 18% of voters in a ward where we’d never stood before.
Like many establishment politicians, the ex-minister had failed to understand that politics is changing. People are looking for genuine representation and the Women’s Equality Party is at the forefront of that change. My win, and our growing support across the country, show how ready voters are for a fresh, hopeful approach to politics.
This could not have been clearer as I canvassed on doorsteps in Congleton. One young woman with three small children was typical in her response as she opened the door to me.
“Will you be voting in the local elections?” I asked.
“No, it’s got nothing to do with me. They never do anything for us,” she replied. But after I outlined our local priorities she practically snatched my flyer from my hand - “Right, I’m voting for you!”
In a country with more FTSE100 CEOs called Dave than female CEOs, where 600,000 stay-at-home parents would prefer to work, and where a decade of austerity has crippled our health and social care services, our policies are resonating with men and women alike.
But gaining votes is not the only way our party is winning. Wherever we stand, the other parties respond by becoming more like us. Slowly but surely, we are forcing the mainstream to do more on equality and to do it better. Last year, the Labour Party expanded their offer on childcare as the flagship policy at their conference, after we had pushed for universal childcare while standing against their candidates. Meanwhile in Liverpool, our incredible metro mayor candidate convinced all the other candidates to sign up to a region-wide strategy to tackle violence against women and girls.
We are not threatened by other parties imitating our policies. In fact we encourage it. The Women’s Equality Party is here to do politics differently and that means collaborating across party lines, building real consensus and achieving progress on the issues where action is sorely needed. That’s why last week, our European Parliament election candidates hand delivered copies of our radical new manifesto for Europe to the offices of the other parties, tied up with a ribbon and a gift card which says ‘steal me’.
Among those policies are plans to establish minimum living standards across Europe with a New Social Deal, initiatives to tackle the care crisis by introducing a Care Workers’ Passport and reintroducing nursing and midwifery bursaries, and the commitment to make Europe the first continent free from human trafficking.
The old parties take our policies in an attempt to neutralise the electoral threat that we pose. They also encourage the fear that we are splitting the vote, to dissuade disloyalty from voters they consider to be ‘theirs’. In the lead-up to the local elections, one councillor even attacked me in our local paper, writing that my WEP campaign was a ‘vote loser’.
But votes do not belong to any party; votes have to be earned. And in order to really mean something, they have to be for something. For years, our broken political system has meant that voters constantly feel obliged to vote against what they don’t want, choosing the least-bad option because it’s a safer bet. But that has only led to widespread frustration, a swell of support for regressive populism and the political gridlock that we now find ourselves in.
Catherine Mayer, our president and the top of our list of EU candidates, often says that optimism is not just a state of mind; it is a political choice that we all have to make.
The Women’s Equality Party is standing in the European Parliament elections. WE are standing in the Greater London Authority elections in 2020. WE will stand in the next general election and we will continue to run in local elections across the country. It’s over a century since women first got the vote and WE are determined to give them something worth voting for: the opportunity to choose a positive, collaborative approach that promotes equality in the interests of everyone.
That same councillor who said my campaign was a vote loser knocked on my door this week to congratulate me on my win. She said she looks forward to working with me in the council for the good of our town. I look forward to working with her, too.
Kay Wesley is the Women’s Equality Party councillor for Congleton East