Talking as part of a panel last weekend, the leader of the Women’s Equality party, Sophie Walker, looked out at the audience with growing unease. “There was a huge amount of energy in the hall, which was made up of women wanting to learn how to be activists,” says Walker. “But there was also an air of them bracing themselves to do something quite unpleasant.”
They were all aware that stepping into politics was like walking naked into a blizzard. The thought occurred to her, not for the first time, that the current templates for politics and activism were “not sustainable”. This, in part, is what spurred Walker on to rethink the idea of leadership. “And frankly, I think everybody in any position of leadership in politics in Britain should be doing the same.”
Last week Walker resigned as WEP leader, but in her first interview since that announcement, it transpires that it’s not quite as simple as all that.
Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig founded the party shortly before the May 2015 general election, with Toksvig explaining: “I have made jokes over and over again about politics. This election, I’ve had enough.”
About 1,300 people joined on the first day, including Walker. She was 44, a Reuters journalist with no political experience except campaigning for support for her autistic daughter. “Other parties didn’t see me even at my most desperate and loudest. I was talking as a woman, part of an army of unseen women stepping in when the state had failed us, asking, ‘Where are you?’ The answer was always, ‘Well, if you vote for us at election time, we’ll put a bit more money into childcare.’ And I thought, ‘Fuck this.’”
Quickly elected leader of the party, she oversaw the promotion of a manifesto with six core objectives: equal representation in politics and business; equal representation in education; equal pay; equal treatment of women in the media; equal parenting rights; and an end to violence against women. Then she, Mayer and Toksvig urged other parties to steal it.
In 2016, Walker stood for London mayor, winning one in 20 votes. “We were brought on as a surprise candidate at the hustings, and when I walked on stage I saw the candidates go, ‘Oh shit, now we have to talk about women,’” she says. “And that’s how it works. Just being on that stage made such a difference. Whenever we run a candidate, all the other parties put up women, so we’re doing wonders for female representation just by being there.”
In 2017, Walker stood in the West Yorkshire seat of Shipley, against Conservative MP Philip Davies, who had repeatedly opposed measures tackling domestic and sexual violence, and had, she said at the time, “a track record of misogyny”. The Green party stood aside, endorsing Walker. Despite failing to oust him, she had no regrets, because WEP had brought attention to his “regressive politics”.
WEP’s 2017 party manifesto included a fully-costed plan for universal childcare that would pay for itself within five years, leading (Walker claims) other parties to “up their game” around care, if not yet quite shifting their attitudes.
“We achieved what we did because we had no idea what we were doing – it’s always been like changing the wheels on a moving car,” Walker says. “And it was always really cheering to work with women in parliament like Caroline Lucas, Jo Swinson, Anne Jenkin, Nicky Morgan, people who understand why our party has come to exist.” Still our party? “Oh yes.”
At home in London, having announced her resignation on Twitter two days earlier, Walker, elegant in leg warmers, pours tea from a pot. She has been waking at 4am to scribble notes on what comes next; she’s been fielding interview requests from journalists asking, “How does it feel to be a burned-out disappointed woman in politics?” She laughs, darkly. The doorbell rings, a delivery – a friend has sent her a gift, the biography of Muhammad Ali. There’s no note – the implication is clear. In her soft Scottish accent she recalls the battles she’s fought during her leadership to debate (and here she performs camp air quotes) “women’s issues”: before she can discuss a problem, she must first prove it exists.
“Whether equal pay, violence against women, sexual harassment … I’ve had to grit my teeth through tedious talk shows where they ask, ‘But isn’t it just flirting?’ It’s relentless. It happened on the Today programme at the height of #MeToo, where I had to debate whether some women … like it! There have been many points where I’ve had to lock myself in the ladies afterwards and scream. Except then …,” she smiles, suddenly emotional, “Then you come out to a huge wave of women saying thank you.”
But this is simply an example of something she’s been struggling with for some time. “A measure of my ability to be a good leader is the number of people that want my job, but women would often say, ‘I think what you’re doing is great, but there’s no way I’d do that.’ And that, as well as the car crash of Brexit, is what’s led me to think about different models.
“Brexit is the ultimate demonstration of how broken our democracy is and how utterly incapable our institutions are of mending it. The reason it’s impossible to deliver is because it’s about feelings and representation and a loss of dignity, and you’re not going to answer that with an endless argument about the Norway model.”
You can’t have one person going into battle, she explains, trying to represent the thoughts of thousands, especially as the ground is moving beneath them. “Please don’t think I’m comparing myself to Michelle Obama,” she says. “Christ no. But it’s like she said: people want a saviour, a guru, and that doesn’t work because we don’t need one man, we need a movement.”
Which is why she’s considering collective leadership models, and why she’s making space for women of different backgrounds to come forward. “While I completely understood the #AskHerToStand campaign, I also felt very frustrated, because unless that comes with serious support it’s basically Lean In for politics. And that sets women up to fail.
“WEP is the only party that offers the level of support that we do, and despite the restrictions of electoral rules that say you’re not allowed quotas of BME candidates, we always make sure we work creatively to effectively make it happen.”
They already offer childcare support to candidates, but “I’d like us to be thinking about how we build more structured support around these women too, with mentoring and mental health support.” The latter is, perhaps, one of the requirements for people entering politics today.
“Our current templates are not sustainable. We don’t come up with solutions, don’t allow space for creativity, for multiple voices. You’re never allowed to say, ‘I don’t know’, which means you either get easy answers or evasion. That was one of the shocks, coming into politics. Finding myself in an interview where they’re just waiting for me to fall into a hole.
“Suspicion on both sides just isn’t conducive to creativity. It’s terribly combative, because there’s a paucity of new ideas – when we keep rewrapping the same old stuff you have to come up with sillier and sillier messaging. The emergence of the ‘strong man’…” On her fingers she counts off Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán. “And in Britain too, with the Brexit men saying they’re ‘telling it straight’. It’s fossilising, it’s becoming shoutier and shoutier.”
She is sitting forward, her voice brittle. “We have huge problems with globalisation but also huge problems in that massive swaths of people have never been seen or heard. There’s concern about white working-class men’s jobs, but we’re still not talking about the women silently supporting them with unpaid social infrastructure.
“We have got to get some new voices into politics, create systems that allow women to breathe.”
This, then, is an invitation, she says. To the next generation of women that will be in Westminster in 10 years’ time, to women who are interested in leading in new ways.
“These will be people who have given up on political parties, who’d never see themselves as politicians, who are driven by the realisation nobody is coming to their rescue – that’s when you’re liberated to do it yourself, to build networks, to start activating … Politics is not going to happen in Westminster for the foreseeable future, politics is going to happen in those communities. Women will bring their solutions and experiences to bear.”
So Walker is not stepping down – not really. Instead, she’s sitting down, for a minute at least, and inviting others to join her at the table. Rather than the idea that people are born activists, Walker believes activists (and the people she hopes will join WEP) arrive there as a result of their experiences. “Activist-politicians are what we need, not people who think, ‘Politics is the career for me.’ People who have had a lifetime of being elbowed and bumped and grazed, until looking down they realise they’re completely covered in bruises.”
She pauses. “I hope they’re reading this, and will trust us enough to realise this is an opportunity to create a completely different parliament, to believe, ‘There’s a place here for me.’”