The pink battle bus wheeled out to entice women to vote Labour during the last general election will dog Harriet Harman for the rest of her career, and rightly so.
Christened the “Barbie bus” the moment it hit the road, it was widely ridiculed as “patronising” and “sexist”. The pink vehicle, though Labour’s deputy leader preferred to describe it as a shade of magenta, was intended to “reach out” to women and show them that politics is not just for men, but it ending up doing just that: it suggested to the ladies that girly gimmicks are required to sugar the route to the voting booth.
Critical voices were unanimous in their verdict: treating women as a special case in this way is neither a good or effective approach. Women are rather like men, after all, and it is best to appeal to us as if we are adults capable of intelligent thought, rather than a different kind of person due to our biology. And yet it would seem that this lesson has not been learnt, because this is exactly what a new party, set up partly in response to that dire election campaign, looks set to do.
This month the Women’s Equality Party officially launched. Thousands signed up to be members the instant they could pay the £4 monthly joining fee. The leadership, for now, has a media and metropolitan slant. The comedian Sandi Toksvig left the BBC to help set it up with the journalist Catherine Meyer, and the journalist and author Sophie Walker is the leader. As a consequence, the WEP has been criticised for not having grassroots support, for not reflecting the concerns of the average woman, but that’s unfair: it’s early days, and they have ambitions to open branches across the country – indeed, they already have – and you have to start somewhere. If metropolitan media types didn’t have a go at doing something, they would be criticised for being privileged and apathetic. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.
I salute the “can do something” sentiment, but I won’t be paying the few pounds a month to join, nor will I be celebrating the launch. This is a single-issue organisation, one that is unlikely to benefit women or men.
The first problem with the WEP is the idea of a party for women run by women. The mission statement tries to say it’s for women and for everyone else, it opens with: “Equality for women isn’t a women’s issue.” And continues:
“When women fulfil their potential, everyone benefits. Equality means better politics, a more vibrant economy, a workforce that draws on the talents of the whole population and a society at ease with itself”.
Well of course the leadership claims WEP is for everyone, and that its membership will be, and is, “uniting people of diverse ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, beliefs and experiences” – the team are clearly putting their marketing and copywriting experience to work – but that sentiment is difficult to pull off when the organisation is called the “Women’s Equality Party”, when there are no men to be seen or heard, when guys don’t seem to be granted a voice, and the aims are all about achieving things for women.
In one respect, then, the WEP is about identity politics, and is not all that unlike Ukip or the SNP. Actually, there are further similarities with these two parties, in that there is something about the WEP that looks like it could capture a wave of the anti-political mood which has recently benefited what are, arguably, other protest groups.
The WEP describes itself as a new “non-partisan force in British politics” which wants to ensure that “women enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men so that all can flourish”. But it’s not such a great thing for a political party to be non-partisan. I appreciate that “partisan” is often used as a term of abuse, that it’s seen simply as being prejudiced in favour of a cause, which is assumed to be a negative thing, but if you want to influence and change society, being partisan – that is, being a strong supporter of a cause, being loyal to a group, and not being just an individual who picks and chooses their issues depending on the weather – isn’t a bad thing. It might even ensure focus and bring about success.
The party has six stated goals, which are: “Equal representation in politics and business”; “Equal representation in education”; “Equal pay”; “Equal treatment of women in the media”; “Equal parenting rights”; “An end to violence against women”.
But with these limited aims, WEP continues to flirt with the anti-politics vote. The idea seems to be that the problem of women’s equality, or lack of equality, is more important than other issues, but I doubt that’s the case. Meyer gave the example in a radio interview of not being interested in Ukraine and that’s fine, I guess, but if you really want to change things, including improve childcare and make it cheaper, tackle equal pay and so on, it’s difficult to isolate and address these problems without engaging in broader social issues, most obviously the economy – and the WEP doesn’t have an economic plan.
It’s also not clear how the WEP hopes to achieve its goals. Does it support positive discrimination? Would that be good thing for women and men? In the name of equality, the WEP might be calling for quotas: in the workplace, in the media, and maybe even when it comes to taking care of the kids. That could reinforce the idea that women need special treatment, whilst being rather controlling about it.
The concerns and the aims of the WEP are not wrong – women have never had it so good, but discrimination continues – but it is unlikely these problems are best addressed by an organisation focusing on single issues in this way. It would be wise to park the Women’s Equality Party.