Is the Women’s Equality party too sensible for these extreme times? | Gaby Hinsliff

The party’s leader is right to eschew clickbait politics. But Sophie Walker needs to find a way to get her message across

Something has snapped. In Good and Mad, her new book on female anger, the American writer Rebecca Traister argues that a long-suppressed fury seething under the surface of women’s lives is finally breaking through and changing the nature of political debate. You can feel it in the air, a sort of fierce crackling impatience with the status quo for women, which has helped to fuel everything from abortion law reform in Ireland and the pussy protests against Trump to the global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.

Younger women clearly aren’t prepared to put up with what their mothers endured. But many older women too are raging over everything from changes to the state pension age to a trans rights movement that some fear is riding roughshod over vulnerable women’s concerns. They feel ignored or taken for granted by the political parties they have supported all their lives.

The puzzle is that the one political party founded precisely to cater for women who feel like this is not reaping the rewards. Theoretically, this could be a breakthrough moment for the Women’s Equality party; the point where female frustration fuses with the desire of politically homeless moderate voters for a “none of the above” option on the ballot paper to create something new and potentially explosive. Yet for reasons that anyone currently thinking about setting up a breakaway party would do well to consider, the revolution appears to be a long time coming.

Today in Kettering, the WE launches its annual party conference, the undeniably catchy pitch for which is “Does the current state of politics makes you despair?” The theme is turning a year of marches and protests into action – deeds not words, as the suffragettes had it – and the programme evokes nostalgia for the days when politics was at least occasionally still about things like the failure to convict rapists or fixing a broken social care system, rather than fighting over the right to say offensive things about Jews.

Trans rights protest, New York
‘In the trans rights debate, Sophie Walker comes across as rather hopelessly trying to keep all sides happy.’ Photograph: Michael N/Pacific/BarcroftImages

They’re not avoiding the big issues: there’s a session on how Brexit could set women back and the party leader, Sophie Walker, will come out for a People’s Vote. But they’re acknowledging that these aren’t the only things going on in women’s lives, with sessions on everything from why shared parental leave works in Iceland but hasn’t really taken off here, to single mothers’ anger at unpaid child support being written off as too expensive to collect. Tickets have sold out. So why is membership plateauing at 45,000 after an initial rush of enthusiasm?

It’s never easy for new parties to break through in first-past-the-post systems, but WE was founded three years ago on the understanding that it didn’t actually need to. If Ukip could force its agenda on the main parties without getting a single MP elected, maybe it could do the same with feminist ideas regarded as too expensive or controversial for the mainstream to embrace, like universal free childcare.

Like all small parties, its first problem has been simply getting heard. Nigel Farage’s solution was to throw a metaphorical brick through the nation’s window, by saying something outrageous whenever the ratings were flagging. But the whole ethos of WE is rejecting macho slanging matches for a deeper, more serious examination of women’s lives. It is to Walker’s credit that she won’t engage in clickbait politics – but in terms of media coverage, also to her disadvantage. Her party finds itself in the classic bind of the woman at a meeting who strives earnestly to listen and understand everyone else’s point of view, only to be ruthlessly talked over by those with no such qualms.

It has struggled too with deep and often generational divides within feminism itself. Walker was reportedly booed at one meeting of Woman’s Place, the group founded to debate the impact on other women of expanding trans women’s rights, for saying she wanted to listen to both sides – and mauled by Mumsnetters on the same issue. She comes across as rather hopelessly trying to keep all sides happy in a debate where that is no longer possible. And yet she is right that there are no easy answers.

Nigel Farage
‘Nigel Farage’s solution to getting a small party heard was to say something outrageous whenever the ratings were flagging.’ Photograph: Richard Wainwright/EPA

There are frightened people on both sides of the debate who genuinely feel their rights and safety are under threat. Striking a balance between them will take time, understanding and more listening than shouting. The same is true of a myriad of issues in contemporary politics, including Brexit, but in a bitterly polarised climate that’s not what people want to hear. So many voters say that what we want is grownup, rational, coolly evidence-based politics when in practice what we respond to is often raw tribal emotion.

But I wonder if the deeper problem isn’t that voters find WE slightly confusing. It pitches itself as neither right nor left nor in the middle, but above conventional party politics altogether; reasonably enough, Walker argues that feminism is a radical ideology in and of itself, not a subset of some other political tradition. But in practice that refusal to pick a recognisable side is all too easily confused with lack of conviction, mushiness or a desire to sit on the fence.

And while it’s not a classic centrist party, that makes WE an intriguing illustration of the single biggest challenge facing any new party that might emerge from Labour’s struggle to the death or from inside the Tories’ great Brexit schism. Somehow, it would need to get across the idea that moderate centre ground beliefs are more than just a way of splitting the difference between two extremes; that they’re a creed in their own right, held as passionately as any other, and as capable of being a force for change. It ought to be possible to be both moderate and angry, outraged yet still capable of responding rationally; to be good and mad, in all senses of the words. But as women have been finding down the ages, that is perhaps still far easier said than done.

• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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Gaby Hinsliff

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