‘We’re not just for middle class white women’: new head of Women’s Equality party

Mandu Reid on the challenge of being Britain’s first black party political leader

Mandu Reid wasn’t always a feminist. In fact, for a long time she was “embarrassed” to identify with a movement which is now central to her being. “I was a late developer in that respect,” she says. Growing up in southern Africa during the apartheid era, she says, “racial lines were much more front and centre in my mind, and it wasn’t until I was 26 that I changed tack. It took me that long to realise how much work was needed to bring gender equality. I was so naive – I feel quite stupid about my younger self.”

Yet Reid is now the new leader of the Women’s Equality party (WEP) and one of the brightest hopes in British feminism. She moved to London aged 18 and has lived and worked there since, first for the Treasury and then for the London mayor’s office. She is the first black leader of a political party in the UK, a historic moment that she feels comes with contradictory emotions.

“I’m proud and humbled, but I’m daunted as well. When you have very little representation in public life, you’re forced into a template of what a black woman is supposed to be or stand for, and that’s not what freedom really is. [Also], everyone knows being a black woman in politics comes with a whole load of hazards, hostilities and threats.”

One suspects doubly so for the leader of a party that has made its primary mission to bang the drum for feminism and gender equality. The WEP was founded in 2015, shortly before the general election, by journalist Catherine Mayer and television presenter Sandi Toksvig, the latter declaring: “I have made jokes over and over again about politics. This election, I’ve had enough.” It now has 30,000 members and 75 branches nationally, but is yet to win any seats.

“People often ask: ‘Why don’t you call it the Equality party, that would be much more palatable?’,” she says. “But I don’t buy that. We’ve made a conscious decision to stick with what our name is.” Unlike the rest of the political landscape, Reid insists that mainstream appeal isn’t a dominating priority.

“Let’s go back to the civil rights movement, to the Black Panthers: are they supposed to call themselves ‘the Panthers’ to appeal to a broader church of people? I would argue no. What you do, when you’re at the stage where we’re at with our movement, is that you name the group you are there to stick up for, whether people find it squeamish or difficult. We are unapologetic about making ourselves relevant to the people who need us most.”

Relevance for the party is of course another concern, but Reid is undeterred by the challenges ahead. “I really push back when people say it’s a waste of time and futile, because it’s not just about tallying votes. Over the last 20 years I think you can make a compelling argument that the most influential force in British politics, in terms of actually changing the destiny of this country, has been Ukip,” she says.

“How many seats have they had? How many have they won? What they’ve done is exerted influence over the other parties. It is a sinister influence, and our influence, I would argue, is a noble one.”

It stands to reason, then, that when WEP candidates are on a ballot paper and make their arguments, they are changing the conversation and forcing other parties to up their game when it comes to gender equality. In the 2017 Liverpool mayoral election, for instance, the WEP’s candidate had a profound impact on hustings and ended up working closely with the winning Labour candidate to produce the city’s first strategy on ending violence against women. “We’ve done the heavy lifting and thinking,” says Reid. “We have made a blueprint that is replicable across the UK.”

Reid, 38, is confident that the party has a chance of success at the European elections – party co-founder Mayer has announced she is standing for the London region – and an even greater one at the London Assembly elections next year. “The narrative of us being a homogenous party only serving white middle-class women is an oversimplification,” she says emphatically. “We have a really diverse list [of candidates]: I would venture right now that it is more so than any other party out there.”

Sophie Walker
Sophie Walker stepped down as the WEP’s leader in January. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/the Observer

When Sophie Walker stepped down as the WEP’s leader in January, she said it was because she wanted to ensure that the party was reflecting its increasingly diverse base and representing women further marginalised by race, sexuality, class or disability. By that measure – and many more – Reid is an engaging choice. She stood in the controversial Lewisham East byelection last year, in which a far-right candidate was on the ballot and hustings were boycotted, and she has been party spokesperson on equal parenting since last year.

“Some people find that weird because I’m not a parent yet.” She takes a breath. “Five years ago, when I was 33, I got pregnant. I wasn’t properly together with the guy, he was a bit younger than me, and we had a lot of conversations about what to do.” In every scenario the couple imagined, the responsibility seemed to fall on Reid to be the primary caregiver and breadwinner, a future she couldn’t make work. She decided to have an abortion.

“If what WEP was advocating was reality here in Britain, in the same way as it is in northern Europe, I would have been able to make a different decision in my situation, and that really flicked a switch in my brain,” she says. “I started to feel indignant and annoyed that nobody else, in terms of the parties that wield political power and influence, was ambitious enough, and that this little party here had done the work and thinking on equality, parenting, working flexibility. What is the excuse?”

Despite a thwarted attempt to become a Labour activist in 2010 and vowing never again to join a political party, Reid was sold when she finally joined the WEP in 2018. “It shifted the dial for me. It made me think: ‘OK, this isn’t just interesting. This is something I need to give my energy and passion to.”

What’s next on the agenda? “We’re an antidote to a lot of people’s disillusionment with party politics. It’s about showing people there are folks out there who care about what we’re standing for and being a mouthpiece for people who don’t get heard. We will do that as long as we need to keep doing it.”

Key policies

The party is calling for reformed medical curriculums to challenge “male-centred research”, which is said to result in women’s health problems being taken less seriously than men’s. It has pledged to scrap the tampon tax, and bring in new laws to protect women taking sick leave from menopause.

If women held equal power, the whole country would benefit, the party says. Accordingly, violence against women would be taken more seriously and the economy would grow at a faster rate. “To this end, we have concluded that – as a temporary measure – quotas will be necessary to drive substantial change.”

Women make 81p of every pound earned by men, despite the passage of the Equal Pay Act, the party says. It is calling for a comprehensive approach to assessing disparities in pay, with medium-sized firms also required to publish earnings data on earnings to develop a greater understanding of the relationship between gender, race, age, disability status and pay.

The joys of parenthood are not shared equally in our society, with childcare tending to fall to women and men often denied the opportunity to spend time with their family for fear of being penalised at work, the party says. A system of shared parental leave is proposed: it would be a radical departure from the present, where women have up to 52 weeks’ leave and men get a minimum of just two weeks.

The WEP says press coverage of women is often casually reductive, with young women presented as either sex objects or victims and older women as “cougars”, victims, or simply invisible. It commits to speaking out against stereotypical media portrayals and wants warning notices to be included on images of models with unhealthily low body weights.


Nosheen Iqbal

The GuardianTramp

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