Sophie Walker: Equality for women is not a political football
Tucked away near the hipster-laden Bermondsey Street in south east London is the Women’s Equality Party’s campaign headquarters.
The small, three-floor operation is in full flow, just under a month remains in party leader Sophie Walker’s bid for City Hall, and the former journalist is in full campaign mode.
Walker is part of the 12-person shortlist running for mayor of London. It is a wide and diverse field, but Walker believes only her party is factoring in the capital’s four million women at the heart of its policy-making.
"Anyone you vote for as mayor will take action on housing, will take action on policing, will take action on transport, but we are the only party proposing to do it in a way that actually incorporates the needs of everybody in the capital,” she says taking a seat in the top of floor of the WEP’s studio, nursing a cup of tea as another April shower lacerates the windows.
“We have this idea that London is the best city in the world and it’s this place of wonderful opportunity and on the one hand it is, but on the other it’s an incredibly harsh place to live if you’re a woman. If you’re a woman in London you’re more likely to be unemployed, you are more likely to be living in poverty, you are more likely to experience danger on the streets and on the public transport systems than anywhere else in the UK.”
Walker spent 20 years as a reporter working for Reuters on beats including foreign affairs during the latter years of the Iraq War, and never fancied crossing the Rubicon into politics.
The 44-year-old’s pilgrimage began when trying to juggle having young children and her career in journalism. Her eldest daughter was belatedly diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and the experience of seeing her bullied over the disability left Walker feeling helpless.
Walker began a blog about her experiences, which was turned into a successful book, Grace Under Pressure. She remains to this day an ambassador for the National Autistic Society, calling for more research into diagnosing autism in girls.
All this illustrated to Walker the power of taking action, being proactive and illuminating an often overlooked or underreported issue. Waiting for someone else to step up to the plate will lead to disappointment, she says.
And so, after seeing successive governments window dress on measures to tackle inequality, Walker agreed to lead the WEP, set up by comedian and writer Sandi Toksvig and journalist Catherine Mayer in March of last year.
“I am absolutely alive to what we’re doing because it’s appalling to me that we are still where we are with unequal pay,” she explains.
“It’s appalling to me that I live in a city where 85% of the young women have experienced harassment on the streets, when 15 rapes are reported every single day. It is appalling to me that we are still in a situation where men feel that they can’t take parental leave because it’s frowned upon and not manly, and they are working longer and longer and longer hours and forced out of family life, at the same rate that women are being forced out of working life.”
She adds: “We are here to say we should all be working together on this, this should be everybody’s priority – equality for women is not a political football, it’s ours to claim and we’re claiming it.”
Walker is by no means your average politician, and would loathe to be perceived in that light. She recoils when extolling more cliché soundbites – the word “passion” prompts a brief pause as she cringes at its use - and corrects herself accordingly.
She is in a unique group of women leaders of political parties in England. In Scotland however, women front the three leading parties north of the border. Why is that the case? Walker believes it does not portray the whole picture.
“I think it’s fantastic, it’s great to see women leaders of the main parties in Scotland. But that doesn’t trickle through, when you look at the actual breakdown through the rest of the party system, it’s still very bad, it’s just as bad as the situation in England,” she says.
Walker argues that politics is an expensive vocation that precludes many women from stepping forward. To combat this, the WEP is providing bursaries for low-income candidates and subsidies for childcare costs.
“It’s really basic, I don’t understand why the other parties aren’t doing this, they have vast budgets. It would be very straightforward to do this and it would be a very quick way to get more women into politics,” she fumes.
Walker believes whoever is elected mayor should negotiate a fund from the government to invest into childcare facilities.
“There is an absolute crisis of care in London and it’s really amazing to me that the other candidates do not talk more about this, because nothing is a bigger barrier to women being able to work than affordable childcare,” she says.
In its manifesto, the WEP plans to subsidise childcare from nine months. With typical forthrightness, she succinctly lays out how the policy is in fact an investment in Britain’s economy, allowing women to return to work faster, as opposed to one likely to incur a hefty bill.
“You invest in infrastructure, construction building, and women’s jobs are seen as expenses to be cut… and it doesn’t have to be that way.”
On transport, Walker has reservations about the introduction of the night tube and the safety of women. Women have approached her lamenting that they are charged an effective “transport tax” by having to use taxi services to navigate safety concerns over late night travel.
To mitigate the fears from a 24/7 underground, Walker advocates better-lit stations, access to Wi-Fi and the introduction of a “night watch”.
Transport should be accessible for all, she adds, and is up in arms about how mothers with pushchairs “are pitted against somebody in a wheelchair” for space on a bus. Walker would also like information to be provided on public transport so that users know how to report harassment.
“I think it’s quite odd that there are signs on the tube for ‘don’t eat smelly food’ and ‘don’t wear big rucksacks’, and there’s nothing on there about respect your fellow travellers,” she says, while we all nod in agreement.
It’s a common theme – it is difficult to challenge or take issue with a lot of Walker’s diagnoses. On domestic violence, Walker says there were 146,000 incidents reported last year. The figure is yet another that stops me in my tracks.
To combat this deeply worrying rise, the WEP advocate sex and relationship education in London schools from seven-years-old, rather than just simply increasing police numbers.
What remains unexplained is why Walker decided to use the WEP as a conduit for her pursuit of equality for women as opposed to other means at her disposal, such as through pressure groups or protest movements. There are many “brilliant” women’s organisations in the UK, Walker explains, but they can “only get so far”.
“Look at the state we’re in, they’ve done wonderful work, they have helped us to move forward and they have issued recommendation after recommendation that goes unheeded because the decision makers consistently choose to look the other way,” she says.
“The only way that we can really get this to the top of the political agenda is to be an electoral force. We’ve seen the system used very effectively by the Greens and very effectively by Ukip, and it’s really at the point that you start to threaten the vote that you can have an impact.”
The WEP is unique in that it claims it will cease to exist once its policies have been incorporated into the mainstream. Among its stated objectives is an end to violence against women, equal representation in politics and throughout working life and equal pay.
“My challenge to the other parties, our challenge, our whole membership, the point is to please, beat us to it,” she says, never breaking eye contact.
She adds: “My manifesto is open to all of the other candidates. We are not going anywhere until we see it done. There’s a lot of talk, we really, really want to see some action.”
Walker contends that the WEP’s existence is prompting the Labour and Tory candidates for City Hall, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, to focus more on the issue of gender equality.
“So it’s working, but we are still at the point where equality for women is still being considered as a detail in a manifesto. At least we are now getting into detail, but ideally it would all be done with.”
But the harsh reality is that Walker is not going to wake up on 6 May as London’s new commander-in-chief. So in light of that, which of her rivals running for Boris’ job would she most like to see emerge victorious?
Walker spent 20 years at the top of her profession in journalism. So she can sense a reporter’s pending inquiry from a mile off.
“The person that steals all my policies,” she says, with a wry grin.