For five remarkable female candidates at the next general election, their manifesto will be as personal as it is political. The Women’s Equality party has selected five survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence to stand against five male MPs who have been accused of violence or harassment. It is a bold step for the party, and for the candidates it can’t be an easy one to take. But for two of them, at least, the decision was straightforward.
Serena Laidley, who will be standing in Luton North, said yes immediately when she was asked to stand for election. “I’m still nervous,” she says. “I thought: ‘Why me?’ But then a voice said: ‘Why not me?’” Other women are going through sexual abuse, assault and domestic violence and are afraid or silenced, she says. “Let me be that mouthpiece and let me champion women and girls who are so afraid to speak up and be that representation.”
We meet at a cafe in Westminster, along with Jenn Selby, another WEP candidate, who is standing for Cities of London and Westminster. They are formidable, articulate women and if I were one of the men they were standing against, I would be feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
Laidley’s opponent is Kelvin Hopkins, who was suspended by the Labour party after allegations of sexual harassment and is still under investigation. Selby is standing against Mark Field, the Conservative MP who was filmed grabbing a female Greenpeace activist by the neck. An investigation into the incident was dropped by Boris Johnson when he became prime minister. Field apologised to the woman, but Hopkins has denied the allegations.
The WEP will field three other candidates, one against the Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke, who will appear in court next month charged with three counts of sexual assault, and the former Labour MPs Ivan Lewis and Jared O’Mara, both of whom have been accused of sexual harassment. Lewis and Elphicke deny the allegations.
Laidley and Selby talk of shocking abuse, although as Selby points out: “The more I talk about it, the more people disclose to me that they have been through something horrific, and the more widespread the problem seems.”
She says that in 2013, she was raped and, for nearly two years, went through a court system that she describes as “very brutal”. Her case was thrown out days before she was due to give evidence because the CPS said there was not a reasonable prospect of conviction. At the time, Selby was an editor at the Independent newspaper but was struggling with her mental health, denied therapy while the case was ongoing, and had to leave work.
“I was just so angry and lost, and all these emotions you go through when something like that finishes without a conclusion,” she says. “You just end up carrying it with you. I needed to do something with it, so I started campaigning.”
She helped set up a women’s rights campaign with several NGOs in India, became an ambassador for Solace Women’s Aid and worked with IC Change, the campaign to get the government to ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and girls, successfully getting a private member’s bill through parliament. “All of us have stories to tell, all of them quite brutal and unjust, and we’re standing against men who have not been held to account,” she says.
Laidley was 16 and had just finished school when she befriended a group of girls who, unbeknown to her, belonged to a gang. They lured her to a house where she was gang-raped by seven men. “It turned my light of hope for a successful future into darkness – I’m shaking now – and I wanted to commit suicide,” she says. She tried to. “It put fear into my family because they didn’t know what I was going to do next. I tried counselling, but all I was entitled to was six weeks and that wasn’t enough.”
She continued her education, going to college, but subsequently found herself in an abusive relationship – she thought that was normal. “I felt shame, thinking: ‘It’s happened again.’ I thought this person loved me.”
Laidley went to the police numerous times, but they took no action. Her ex-partner was controlling with her money, sometimes taking her phone, but would allow her to go to college. She stayed with him for another six months, planning her escape – to university, where she had got a place with accommodation for students who were parents.
“I waited until he went to work and I packed up my bags, my son, the buggy, passport and £30 in cash,” she says. He found her eventually, and for the next few years she lived through harassment, stalking and her former partner breaking injunctions, until he finally moved away.
“I started to realise the mental impact I had endured and I was diagnosed with PTSD,” she says. “I had to give up work, I again tried to commit suicide. I realised that I needed more help.” She still has counselling. “What also helps is helping other women and children.”
Now, Laidley is a part-time secondary school teacher, and runs her own education programme, teaching empowerment and respect in schools, as well as working with organisations supporting women through domestic violence and preventing youth suicide.
Is it daunting to be a candidate and have to relive these stories, standing on a platform against male violence and abuse? “Yes, it’s really hard,” says Selby. “It takes away a little bit of you every time you have to talk about it. But you have to weigh up the pain you feel talking about it constantly, and a sense of justice and being able to put that negative energy towards something positive.
“The fact that people who have the power to take decisions that affect our personal safety, and the protection of women and girls, are allowed to sit in parliament having [unresolved] allegations or being charged with serious offences is just an abomination. We want to hold them to account and if they’re not going to do that in parliament, then we want to hold them to account at the ballot box.”
Laidley says that standing for the WEP, and talking about her story, feels like a “release”. “I know I’m helping other women out there. In order to create change, we have to keep speaking about it. Standing against them, I would like to believe that I’m doing it for all women who can’t speak.”
If they win, they will be joining a workplace where a 2018 report found that one in five people had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in the past year.
“It’s disgusting,” says Laidley. “You’re in the place where laws are being made and you’re still getting sexually harassed and being silenced.”
They know they probably won’t win their seats. “I mean, I might,” says Selby with a laugh. It is a protest, she says. If the WEP can draw attention to the way the main parties handle – or rather, don’t – allegations of harassment and abuse, they will consider that a victory. The WEP wants amendments to the Recall Act 2015 to give constituents the power to remove their MPs if an independent third party finds them guilty of sexual harassment or violence. They are also calling for secured funding for services that support women and girls who have experienced violence and abuse – following years of cuts – as well as universal free childcare from the age of nine months.
“At the moment, we’re in negotiations with the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party and any other pro-remain parties, to get them to change their policies around how they’re dealing with these investigations,” says Selby. The women will stand down if those parties adopt the amendment, and will help campaign for them.
Have the men they are standing against been in touch? According to a WEP spokeswoman, Lewis’s team phoned to say that he wasn’t under investigation, but none of the other men has contacted the party or its candidates.
“I’m looking forward to having a nice chat at some point,” says Selby. Laidley says Hopkins’s behaviour will be something she talks about in her campaign, but she would rather not focus on him.
Selby says: “I’m hoping that people don’t just see me as a survivor and they’re able to see that I can do the job, and that I’m one of very many women who have been through a similar thing. But the big thing we’re doing is exposing these men and that injustice.”
Has it been an empowering process? Both say the WEP has been incredibly supportive. “Having its support is really a strength in my back, allowing me to project my voice, having that push,” says Laidley. “I don’t know about self-empowerment but it’s a good release of self-expression, pain and hurt. It’s knowing that I’m doing it for the greater good.”
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic violence helpline is on 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic Violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org