There’s a video going viral, as Mandu Reid and I sit down to chat. You’ve probably seen it. It involves a woman named Jackie Weaver, trying to chair a local community council meeting and coming under fire from a succession of men best described as gammon.
It’s being viewed as comedy, hundreds of thousands of people responding gleefully to this Little Britain-esque display of small-town squabbles. But for Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, underdog London mayoral candidate and a woman who laughs freely and often, it’s not actually that funny.
“To see her being harangued, abused, shouted at and bullied in a small pond local council meeting…” she sighs, tailing off. “That’s absolutely emblematic of what it’s like to be a woman attempting to play a part as a protagonist in public life. Abuse is a huge, huge barrier to women entering politics, and it’s increasing rather than decreasing. So that is something we need to move to a position of zero tolerance for.”
Reid should know. The first woman of colour to lead a UK political party, she’s standing for London Mayor in May with 250 to one odds. Her party, just five years old and a minnow of the political scene, hopes to make gains where proportional representation allows them – in the London Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, for example – while also forcing the issue of equality onto the agenda in seats, Reid happily admits, they stand to lose.
“Our mission is not about accumulating power for power’s sake,” she smiles. “To be perfectly honest with you, I would rather be lying on the beach in Barbados because we weren’t needed. We are absolutely trying to do ourselves out of business.
“But to do that, we need to get to the point where all of the other political parties are sufficiently ambitious about equality between men and women that they don’t relegate it to a footnote in their manifestos.”
Ultimately, we want to see more women elected, and whenever we announce that our candidate is standing for election in a particular seat, it increases the likelihood of the other parties standing a woman.Mandu Reid
Her election strategy she says, somewhat surprisingly, is to borrow from the playbook of UKIP – to prove that you don’t need to claim a majority of seats anywhere to significantly shift the dial of public discourse. “We want to exert influence over the other parties,” she says, simply. “And so what we do every time there’s an election is we package up our manifesto, tie it in a bow, and deliver it to the headquarters of all the other political parties, and we say, ‘Steal our policies, take them, plagiarise this. This is going to make you more attractive to 50 per cent of the population, and solve some of the other problems you’ve spent the last hundred years grappling with and never making progress on.’
“Ultimately, we want to see more women elected, and whenever we announce that our candidate is standing for election in a particular seat, it increases the likelihood of the other parties standing a woman. They want to neutralise the effect of us championing women’s issues, and I’m okay with that. For me, that’s a win. If they are more likely to select women every time we show up on the ballot, for me, we won that election. So we exert influence. We use guerrilla tactics.”
A manifesto for women
The Women’s Equality Party might be small, but the issues it’s campaigning on have never been more pertinent. And as the UK’s larger parties jostle to set out their stalls ahead of May’s local and devolved elections, hers is otherwise engaged with a campaign to ‘home school the government’.
The WEP is calling for guaranteed shared furlough or self-employment support for working parents, for childcare workers to be prioritised for the vaccine, and for working parents to be given extra annual leave days to accommodate for homeschooling.
Further, the party has called for a bailout for the nursery sector – a staggering 50 per cent of early years providers are at risk of closure – and for the Universal Credit lift to be continued, as well as complimented by an uplift to child benefit.
The coronavirus crisis, Reid says, is “a catastrophe for women.” But it is also an opportunity. “We could have spent 20 years trying to raise awareness about unpaid care work, about domestic abuse, about the inequalities that exist in the home and in the workplace between men and women. But COVID came along and it just put all of that into sharp, sharp focus.
“If you think about the professions whose work and risk-taking have ensured our survival over the last year, you’re going to find women are massively over-represented. Whether it’s nursing, social care, childcare or school teaching, what we’ve seen is that if women withdrew their labour, even for a moment, during the unfolding of the pandemic, the whole system would have imploded. Women prop up the entire economy. They prop up our society and allow it to function. We can’t unsee that now. But what we’ve got to do now is harness it. We’ve got to make what’s happened to this country during the COVID crisis count for something.”
The need for representation
Making it count, Reid insists, requires representation at all levels for all people. But the UK government says the current cabinet is Britain’s most diverse ever, I counter – why aren’t we seeing progress?
“They’re diverse,” Reid says, “in the most basic and superficial terms. If you look at the consequences of this government’s decision-making over the last year, it’s completely at odds with the story they want to tell with their nice class photo of the cabinet. Sure, there’s a couple of brown people and a few women sprinkled in, but it is a very, very superficial argument to say we’ve got the most diverse cabinet.”
What’s worse, Reid continues, is “I think they are aware and I think they don’t care. I think they have a very cynical, mercenary approach to the way they rule and the way they govern, and that is very much centred around accumulating and holding on to power. It doesn’t materially affect their political destiny whether or not they implement policies that address, for example, the way people of colour have been disproportionately at the sharp end when it comes to being COVID casualties.”
Reid points to the notorious, now-pulled government advert urging everyone to stay at home, which featured a host of women doing all manner of childcare and chores, while the graphic’s lone man lounged on a couch. The fact that ad was approved in the first place, she says, “is, in a way, a symbol of what’s wrong with how power is distributed in our country.
“The people who wield power are quite a homogenous group as it happens. Largely male, largely public school – potentially the same public school – educated, white, middle-class. And there’s nothing wrong with that constituency of person. They are citizens too. The problem is when you put them all together in a room, there’s a limitation on their worldview.
“And in a way, that advert was a really clear illustration of why it’s critical, if we’re going to rebuild from this crisis, to have better representation, more voices around the table. It exposed the extent to which the people who are leading us through this have horrendous, I would argue unforgivable, blind spots.”
This, Reid says, is why she is standing for London mayor, despite the fact she is “to be fair, a bit of an outside bet!” That is why this round of elections is important. And yet, she is a realist too.
Reid admits that, while the WEP very much expects to make some gains, she sadly expects very little to change on a national level as a result of May’s polls. And so, maintaining momentum for women until the next general election is the real critical challenge for the WEP.
“Between now and the next general election, when the economic crisis really starts to bite, when the mental health consequences of this are making themselves visible, when we see what’s happened with the kids who have not been able to go to school or had their education interrupted, I think that is when we will start to see a real shift in the direction of the United Kingdom from a policy, political and even economic landscape.
“Turbulence brings change. After the Second World War, the NHS was created, and this, I think, is a comparable historical event. And so I do believe, I’m absolutely convinced, that over the next few years, we are going to see a shift in the right direction.
“It’s going to be painful until we get there. There’s no doubt about that. But it’s coming.”
To find out more about the Women’s Equality Party, to support its campaigns or to become a member, visit the website here.