Mile End Institute

The party prepared to lose to win

The newly formed Women's Equality Party is fielding candidates in the forthcoming London, Scottish and Welsh elections.  Dr Rainbow Murray considers how it can hope to shape the political agenda.

23 February 2016

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The Women’s Equality Party is the newest kid on the British political block. 

Formed last year by broadcaster Sandi Toksvig and author Catherine Mayer, and led by journalist Sophie Walker, it has already attracted nearly 50,000 members.

It stands no chance of getting into power, but that’s not the point. It has a unique mission: to get gender equality onto the political agenda. 

It wants equal representation in politics, equal pay, an equal role for men and women in parenting and caregiving, gender equality in schools, action on violence against women, and equality in the media.

Women’s Equality is throwing down the gauntlet – it actually wants other parties to put it out of business by co-opting its ideas.

The party primarily targets women voters from across the political spectrum who are tired of being excluded from the political process. Fewer than 30% of British MPs are female, even though more than half the population are women. 

The neglect of women’s needs in mainstream politics is the driving impetus both for the founding of the party and for its rapid influx of members.

Making history

There is some precedent internationally for parties representing women’s interests. They have met with mixed success – sometimes dying a rapid death), sometimes forcing women’s issues onto the agenda and persuading other parties to take the message on board.

The party seeks to join its successful predecessors, taking its next big step as a political party by fielding candidates in the forthcoming Scottish, Welsh and London elections.

In the open and inclusive spirit of the party, the choice of candidates, as well as the funds needed to pay for the candidacies, have come entirely from party members. Unsurprisingly, all 16 of its candidates are women. 

It is also unsurprising that Walker, an experienced advocate of women’s issues, won the nomination to stand in the London mayoral election. 

The high level of professional achievement and community involvement of the other candidates gives an indication of the incredible female talent that has been overlooked by other parties for too long.

When losing is winning

Can this party win? Almost certainly not. 

None of the candidates (two for Scotland, four for Wales, and 11 for London) stands any credible chance of election. 

A small single-issue party that has only existed for less than a year is unlikely to make a major impact on the ballot box. Neither the candidates nor the members who crowdfunded £31,500 for the campaign can be under any illusion that the party is about to seize power.

So why bother? The answer lies in the ultimate goal of the party. This is a policy-seeking rather than an office or vote-seeking party. 

In other words, its concern lies less with obtaining power than with influencing those already in power. 

Although not able to win an election (for now), by drawing enough votes away from mainstream parties Women’s Equality can compel those mainstream parties to start listening.

This is the ultimate aim: to persuade parties who adopt small token gestures that it is time for more radical change. We have made moral, social and economic arguments; now it is time to use the ballot box to exert pressure on other parties.

It is a risky strategy: a poor electoral performance might reinforce the message to other parties that they can continue to be lax on issues pertaining to gender equality. The Women’s Equality Party will therefore need to pull in as many votes as possible from disillusioned women and men – across the political spectrum – who are tired of waiting for the other parties to take women seriously.

The absence of proportional representation at Westminster will present a huge barrier, as the first-past-the-post electoral system prevents parties with modest shares of the vote from winning seats and discourages voters from “wasting” their votes on small parties. 

However, Women’s Equality’s supporters should not lose heart. UKIP faces the same barriers, but managed to shift the political agenda, influencing the major parties on immigration and the European Union. 

A party that cannot win can still be an electoral nuisance that motivates bigger parties to try and win their voters back.

This is the real goal. Mobilising members, resources and candidates is already an achievement; getting the political mainstream to co-opt the ideas is the next challenge.

Rainbow Murray is Reader in Politics at Queen Mary University of London.

This article first appeared in The Conversation