SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 226 March 2019

What happened to the Women’s Equality Party?

The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) was initiated in March 2015. That was two months before a general election that was dominated by austerity parties – the Tories (then in government with the Lib Dems) and Ed Miliband’s New Labour. Empty gimmicks such as Harriet Harman’s pink bus added to the deep alienation from the capitalist establishment parties. Into that vacuum the WEP was born.

On International Women’s Day in 2015 we wrote in the Socialist newspaper: "Where women and the working class find their struggles thwarted by right-wing leaders, the fight will break out elsewhere". (Women and New Unionism, No.846, 4 March 2015) The appetite for a different politics and for an anti-austerity alternative was confirmed within months of the general election – with the surge behind Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour Party leadership.

Women voted for Jeremy Corbyn because the other three candidates, including Liz Kendell and Yvette Cooper, offered a continuation of Blairism and no alternative to austerity. In August 2016, when right-winger Margaret Hodge triggered a coup against Corbyn, YouGov found that women were more likely to vote for Corbyn than men by a difference of 61% compared to 48%.

Now the four-year-old WEP is in crisis. In January its leader since July 2015, Sophie Walker, resigned her position. The WEP was unable to fulfil its mission to "see women enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men" by "pushing for equal representation in politics, business, industry and throughout working life". In announcing her resignation, Walker wrote that the "political quagmire in which the UK finds itself cries out for new activists and new ideas. With democracy so broken, it has never been more important to do politics differently".

But did the WEP ever offer ‘new ideas’, a way to ‘do politics differently’? What did it achieve?

A party comprises its leadership and membership, its structures and how decisions are made and programme formed, as well as its record and origins. The WEP opened for membership on 3 July 2015 to large media fanfare. Its co-founders, journalist Catherine Mayer and BBC broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, were interviewed and most major newspapers reported on the launch. As well as journalists (Walker used to work for Reuters), the WEP’s executive committee included people who describe themselves as a diplomat, a business leader, and an entrepreneur who has written a book about gender diversity in company boardrooms. The steering committee also included journalists, former government officials, business people as well as editors and lawyers.

All women suffer inequality under capitalism regardless of their class. In austerity Britain working-class women were – and still are – the hardest hit by cuts to public-sector jobs, wages and pensions as they make up the majority of that workforce. Women suffer when services and benefits are cut, and women are left filling the gaps as state services are withdrawn. As women’s economic independence is eroded, their ability to flee domestic violence is threatened and funding for women’s refuges has been cut. Resisting sexual harassment at work is even more difficult on a zero-hours contract.

Glasgow council home care workers have won a historic victory against unequal pay. This was a trade union struggle by working-class people – the predominantly female workforce backed by solidarity action from predominantly male bin workers. But we are not for equality of misery. While care workers in Birmingham have won equal pay officially, in practice the attacks by the Blairite-led Labour council on pay and conditions mean that workers still have to strike against poverty pay.

Working-class women suffer doubly – as women and as workers – but for socialists what makes them most important is that they are part of the class that has the potential – when organised across genders, races, ethnicities, religions, sexuality, etc – to be the agent of socialist change to end capitalism and, therefore, to end the inequality which is inherent in capitalism. The fight for women’s equality, then, is not a question of equalisation of rights only but of ending the inequality of class exploitation from which flows women’s oppression.

A socialist programme – a summary of working-class interests – is necessary to arm a party to provide a real challenge to inequality. The WEP did not stand for socialism or a challenge to capitalist inequality and could not fulfil its mission statement. Nor was it the first time women had built a new political party.

At the close of the nineteenth century striking women textile workers in Bradford helped found the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The Tories and Liberals were the main parties and workers did not have an independent political voice. Through the experience of their months-long dispute at Manningham Mills in 1890-91, the striking women saw that the real enemy they faced was the bosses and the capitalist system. Their strike meetings were broken up by the police, their right to organise and free speech was attacked, and strikers who refused to scab were denied Poor Relief condemning their families to starvation. They received support from working-class people and drew the conclusion that organising on a class basis – industrially and politically – was necessary. The ILP went on to be a component founding organisation of the Labour Party formed in 1900.

The WEP’s first electoral outing was in 2016 when it fielded candidates for the London assembly; the Scottish parliament, in Glasgow and Lothian; and for the Welsh assembly in South Wales Central. Walker gained 2.04% in the first round of voting for London mayor and the party finished sixth on the London-wide list with 3.5%. Big name celebrity endorsements for the bid included actor Emma Thompson, musician Lily Allen and writer Caitlin Moran but these and the favourable media coverage did not provide the WEP with any breakthrough.

The WEP stood seven candidates in the 2017 general election with a top vote of 1.9%. Its 32-page manifesto touches on many of the ways austerity and capitalism impact on women’s lives. Its proposal for free childcare for all was definitely a demand that socialists would support. It said that offering free childcare, so that mothers who want to work can do so, could save £37 billion through higher tax revenues and lower benefit payments.

However, the WEP did not say where the jobs will come from. Low pay, inadequate hours and job cuts are a product of the capitalists attempting to increase their share of the wealth at the expense of the working class. This is not a question of appealing to big business to create well-paid and secure jobs for women but of taking the economy into the hands of the working class. What is required is a programme of socialist nationalisation – a crucial step towards democratic socialist planning of the economy in the interests of all. That may not be a new idea but it is the ‘different way’ of doing politics working-class women and men need. To fulfil the needs and expectations of the millions of working-class people who have looked to Jeremy Corbyn means fighting for the Labour Party to adopt such a programme.

Another new-old way of doing politics was suggested by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams. She asked if it "should be possible to stand as a joint candidate, Green and Labour, or Women’s Equality Party and Labour". The Labour Party was born as an umbrella grouping of trade union, women’s suffrage and socialist organisations fighting together for working-class political representation.

As part of the necessary transformation of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour into a socialist working-class party, alongside mandatory reselection and other measures, those fighting for women’s equality and a political voice for women should be encouraged to affiliate – provided they are prepared to agree to an anti-austerity programme. This should also apply to socialist organisations. The fight for a working-class party, with a socialist programme necessary to end the oppression and discrimination women suffer under capitalism, will be what gives women a political voice.

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge

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