London, United Kingdom – If women had access to the same employment opportunities and salaries as men, London’s economy would gain approximately $55bn, according to the Women’s Equality Party (WE).
On the morning of February 18, party leader Sophie Walker stood before Her Majesty’s Treasury, the finance ministry, with a cheque for this amount, representing the money lost due to “women’s untapped earning potential”.
Walker is on the campaign trail, standing as the WE candidate in the 2016 London Mayoral election. On the party’s website, Walker says her intention is “to make London the first city in the world where men and women are equal”.
“I’ve watched one mayor after another ignore and undervalue women. Now, I want to take action to help them flourish. Because when London’s women flourish, the city will be better for everyone,” she explains.
WE was established in the spring of 2015 by Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig. The party registered with the Electoral Commission in July 2015, and has since gained 45,000 members, and set up 70 branches.
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It will put forward its first candidates for election in the Greater London Assembly (GLA), London Mayoral, Scottish Parliament, and Welsh Assembly elections, all of which will take place in May 2016 – with 17 running in total.
Harini Iyengar is standing as a candidate for WE in the GLA election on May 5. She has worked as a barrister since 1999, and specialises in anti-discrimination, sexual harassment and equal pay cases.
From her central London offices, Iyengar explains that throughout school and university she was “very idealistic and enthusiastic about politics”. But soon after graduating from university – as she began her career and become a mother – she started to feel that mainstream political parties were not representing her interests.
“Since then I’ve been in a political wilderness,” Iyengar says.
She had become “disenchanted” with politics, and when WE was established, she was “quite suspicious about it”.
But as she started to read more about it, saw others she respected getting involved and attended the launch party and branch meetings, her feelings changed; the party re-ignited her enthusiasm for politics.
“I saw people whose voices I don’t usually get to hear getting involved and talking about really important political issues. I thought: this is something great. I’d really like to hear those voices being heard beyond the branch meeting.”
“No one really disagrees with what we’re standing for. It’s something that women should have been entitled to a long time ago,” Iyengar says. “We are entitled to [equality] on paper, but we’ve just not got it in practice.”
Does the UK need WE?
WE sprang forth from the belief that mainstream political parties aren’t doing enough to tackle widespread gender inequality within British society.
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“Other political parties do not see [gender equality] as a priority,” explains Walker.
According to the WE website, women make up 51 percent of the UK population, yet, “they [constitute] only 29 percent of MPs, 25 percent of judges and 24 percent of FTSE 100 directors”. On top of this, a working woman will earn 81p for every pound a man makes.
Approximately 1.2 million women are thought to suffer domestic abuse each year, and on average 250 rapes or attempted rapes are reported each day in the UK. “Sexual assault is at epidemic levels in this country,” Walker stated in a press release February 11.
A ‘single-issue’ party?
But WE has been criticised for its “single-issue” approach by those who say it addresses only a singular dimension of inequality within British society.
Many feel that Britain doesn’t need a party dedicated to gender equality in order to get women’s rights more firmly on the political agenda.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera, Nicky Morgan, the UK government’s education secretary and minister for women and equalities, said: “Achieving women’s equality is at the heart of this government and at the heart of the Conservative Party.”
Morgan said that she is “proud to be part of a Conservative government” precisely because it “is committed to making sure no one is held back because of their gender, race or background”.
“After all achieving women’s equality isn‘t just the right thing to do, it’s vital for our country‘s prosperity,” Morgan continued, stating that under the current government, “the gender pay gap is at its lowest level, we have more women in work, more women on boards and more women-led businesses.”
The party responds to such critiques on its website. “WE do not try to present ourselves as a party with an answer on every issue and a full palette of policies and will never take a party line on issues outside our remit: to bring about equality for women.” It adds: “WE are proud to focus on equality for women and also understand that there are many forms of inequality.”
Describing WE as a single-issue party is a “naive and superficial way of looking at it,” according to Iyengar. “We’re not a special interest group. We’re half the population.”
“It’s important to get across that it’s not just about differences between men and women. We want to broaden the debate generally, so that women could be not only at the table, but with all our diversity, we could be part of the political debate, rather than some kind of footnote.”
“When people say that they look at diversity and equality as an add-on,” she explains, “that’s the wrong way of dealing with it. Women’s needs and women’s concerns need to be there from the very beginning.
“Women’s rights need to pervade everything.”
‘An enthusiasm for change’
Iyengar is confident that WE will gain seats in May, and hopes the party will attract voters who don’t normally vote and others who, like her, have become “disenchanted” with mainstream politics.
“We are a party that has crowdsourced our policies, and we’re really committed to representing a wide range of people and going out and listening to people.”
“We’re at a really special moment right now,” Walker said, “there’s such an enthusiasm for change.”
“We don’t want to be another campaign group, we want to be a political force,” added Iyengar, “because that gives us a political power that we’ve been kept out of.”