The Independent Group will only succeed if PR is their central policy | Catherine Mayer

If they are serious about fixing ‘broken politics’, they should join us in backing a fairer voting system

• Catherine Mayer is co-founder of the Women’s Equality party

Optimism isn’t just a state of mind. It’s a political choice – one we all need to take. The animating ideal of progressive politics and equality movements is the belief in the possibility of a better future. So I observe the new and swelling Independent Group of MPs with curiosity, sympathy and a good deal of scepticism. I understand that eight Labour MPs felt they could not remain in their old party. I am not at all surprised to see three moderate female MPs defect from the Conservative party this morning to join their ranks. I do not underestimate the emotional toll of such decisions.

Luciana Berger has shown extraordinary fortitude in the face of relentless abuse; anyone who still doubts the reality of Labour’s problem with antisemitism needs look no further than the suggestion from her former colleague Ruth George, the MP for High Peak, that the state of Israel might be among the backers of the new group (something she has since withdrawn). Anna Soubry’s efforts to steer the Conservatives away from the self-inflicted disaster of Brexit have earned her death threats. No wonder that in every statement given by these MPs, one phrase recurs: politics is broken.

This is a reality I articulated in 2015, when I co-founded the Women’s Equality party (WE). Since then, WE have marched in protests up and down the country with the slogan “Politics is broken” across our placards. But the other side of those placards reads “Reclaim politics”. WE had a vision for transforming our economy and our society. As yet, I cannot see any hint of such a transformative vision in the ranks of the Independent Group.

For a start, real change requires opening politics up to new people doing new things – not repeating the same things in slightly new ways and expecting a different outcome. As more Labour and Conservative politicians reportedly weigh a move to the Independent Group, talk also continues of a second breakaway, a new centrist party backed by old names, supported by old money and infused with old ideas. In fact, many of the political currents roiling Westminster have a distinctly whiskery feel to them, from the tired, repackaged Trotskyism and socialism of the 1980s (hello again, Derek Hatton) to the unbridled, gleeful, racist, misogynistic archaism of a widening strain – or stain – of politics on the other side of the House.

From this perspective, the Independent Group’s launch has been underwhelming – even ignoring Angela Smith’s unfortunate choice of words – but also hugely revealing. The MPs speak of a fresh start but position themselves as an expression of continuity. They may be outside the party system and eye-catching, for now at least, in that the female MPs outnumber their male colleagues. However they have yet to say how they will avoid mirroring mainstream politics’ long history of marginalising women, particularly working-class, disabled and BAME women.

Chuka Umunna extolled the diversity of their group on his Today programme interview, yet he failed to offer any thinking that might break open the Westminster club to real diversity. He also trotted out the vision of economics that political commentators expect: investment in business and physical infrastructure to pay for public services – which are seen as a cost rather than a valuable destination for investment. If he and his colleagues are searching for transformational ideas to boost the economy and societal wellbeing, perhaps they could join us in pushing for the valuing of care and investment in the social infrastructures women disproportionately work in and rely on.

If women being overlooked is the defining feature of our current politics and our economy, there’s good news: recognising women would revitalise both. Universal childcare has the power to revolutionise women’s lives in a country with the most expensive childcare in the world and to narrow the stubborn pay gap. There are costs, of course, but such an investment would swiftly see returns via increased tax revenues from properly remunerated carers and from women freed to fully participate in the workforce. We have costed our policy and modelled it. This is one of many transformative policies we encourage other parties to steal – and we’d like to offer it, gratis, to the Independent Group too.

We already have aims in common with these MPs. They want a second referendum and so does WE. But our ambition was never to remain with a status quo that benefits far too few, it was to advance within Europe. That means daring to be truly radical, reimagining our current politics, political systems and institutions for an age that has far outstripped them. Fierce backing for a proportional voting system must be the beginning of that process, if not its end.

In interviews, members of the Independent Group have denied plans to set up a new party. They may know how hard it is to do so. Either way, they’re welcome to call on me for some home truths. Our political system is programmed to quash dissent before it gets started, rewarding conformity with party patronage, and is reinforced by an electoral system rigged in favour of the two big parties they have just left.

In the absence of a fair voting setup, we’ve looked for other innovative ways to game the system. From the day WE opened for membership, we invited members of other parties to join – and they have, in droves – and we have worked with other parties in alliances and on the possibility of joint candidacies. We have always recognised collaboration across party lines – and divisions – as essential to delivering deep change. And we stand women in elections who have never stood before, based not on conformity and patronage but on their passion and experience. Whatever the final size and composition of the Independent Group, I invite them to work with us too, or even to join us, not just to fix politics but to transform it and our future.

• Catherine Mayer is president and co-founder of the Women’s Equality party


Catherine Mayer

The GuardianTramp

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