Sophie Walker, Women's Equality Party Candidate: "Let's Make London Work For Everybody"

Rachel Holdsworth
By Rachel Holdsworth Last edited 26 months ago
Sophie Walker, Women's Equality Party Candidate: "Let's Make London Work For Everybody"

Alright, let's get this out of the way first, before frothing comments appear below (you know who you are). Why, we ask former Reuters journalist and now mayoral and London Assembly candidate Sophie Walker, is there a need for a Women's Equality Party?

"The Women’s Equality Party formed out of this immense sense of frustration and lost opportunity at the last general election," explains Walker in her Scottish burr. "Many people were wondering who on earth to vote for because they weren't seeing their needs addressed in any policies presented by [the main] parties, and when they were it was as sort of an afterthought."

Other readers will doubtless feel aggrieved that we're picking and choosing which candidates to talk to. We've already explained how we feel about George Galloway (and good grief, the man's tweets). The WEP is polling low; why are we covering them and not, say, Winston McKenzie of the English Democrats? The answer to which is: the WEP isn't basing its policies around exclusion.

Equal pay

"What we want to do is to make London work for everybody," says party leader Walker. "That means pushing stuff up to the top of the agenda that's simply not being considered right now. Like the fact that London's got a 23% pay gap. The national average is 15%. We’ve got childcare costs that are a third higher than anywhere else in the UK. We’ve got higher rates of sexual assault on the streets and on public transport.

"We worked out that in the last year alone, the women working in London — and this includes women working in London and living outside, so people who've been pushed out — earned £70bn less than men in London. That is a huge waste of potential."

Last year the women working in London earned £70bn less than men in London.

So how on earth, we ask, does it get fixed? She tells us that women don't get the same opportunities to work in London — e.g., a lack of part time jobs. "We want to create quality part time jobs [and] flexible working, so that women have the opportunity to share with their partners and whole families. I would do that by changing the working culture in the GLA. We should go straight away to flexible working as the default, rather than a slightly weird thing that you have to ask for."

It's the principle adopted by the London Living Wage, of leading by example. Walker says she would publish rates of pay in City Hall, "so we can see straight away how many men we've got, how many women, what rates of pay, what status, what the retention is like before and after maternity leave, break it all down by ethnicity and disability, get a really good look at what’s going on because then you’re better equipped to tackle it".

Childcare

Childcare is also a major part of this platform. London's childcare (where it's actually available) costs are far higher than the rest of the country. The WEP wants to offer parental leave, for either parent, at 90% of pay. "That breaks the current mode of behaviour," says Walker, "and creates a situation whereby men and women will automatically be going off. If you make this a 'use it or lose it' offer, then to an employer they're hiring both men and women in the knowledge that both will be taking leave."

The WEP also wants to cover the childcare gap that currently exists between the end of maternity leave and the 15 hours paid for by the state when a child turns three. They say a flat 25p rate of pension tax relief would fund 15 hours of free childcare, and another 15 hours at a pound an hour, from nine months.

Housing

Walker's take on housing is that putting more money into women's pockets, by making it easier and fairer to work, makes rent and mortgages more affordable. What it doesn't do, is anything about the lack of housing for people to move into when they have a job or the lack of supply that's pushing costs far above the reaches of even the middle, never mind the low paid.

The WEP doesn't have any specific policies to tackle this part. But Walker almost sees that as a virtue. "I find it quite shameful actually, that we've got to a situation where all the other political parties have got their idea and they're bashing each other over the head to say 'no, my idea is better than yours'. I’d want to create a cross-party committee on housing. There are good ideas on housing right across the spectrum. I don’t think we should be arguing over how many houses to build and in which place."

What she would do is ringfence funding for homes for vulnerable Londoners. "We've been out visiting refuges in London and they are absolutely on their knees," she says. "They're closing, they're turning people away. Every seven and a half minutes in London someone is being beaten. And there is nowhere for these people to go."

Transport

We're talking before the announcement that the British Transport Police is axing its specialist sex offences unit, and we're later not surprised to see Walker tweet in frustration about the decision.

"Sexual attacks on the tube went up by a third last year and that's completely unacceptable," she tells us. "And we're not even at the true picture, I don’t think, because we know that women under-report by a big amount. I think it's quite odd that there are signs on the tube telling people not to eat smelly food and there's nothing saying this is what you do if you witness a crime or if you're a victim of a crime."

Walker tells us about Pavan Amara, who helped the WEP build its We Count website where women can map where they've been groped, catcalled and attacked. "She [Amara] was attacked herself," says Walker. "And she said that before that attack happened, London was hers. And then after that attack, London was hers apart from that bit there. Given the rate of these incidences, for many women who live in London, London's not theirs. There are holes right across London, all those places where something like that happened. What we wanted to say was 'reclaim that place'."

I think it's quite odd that there are signs on the tube telling people not to eat smelly food and there's nothing saying 'this is what you do if you witness a crime or if you're a victim of a crime'.

Walker also wants to see better cycling facilities. "I would like to see an expansion of the existing cycle highways and quietways," she says. "When you look at the cyclists in London it's like an extreme sport for men in lycra. I would like women and children to feel comfortable to just pootle about.

"Equally we don’t want a situation where women and children feel like the centre [of London] isn't for them. If we build better facilities, more showers, more places to put bikes, then I think we can encourage people to cycle more." It's a good example of a policy that, though developed with women in mind, helps all Londoners.

"We're not trying to create some kind of lopsided society, we’re trying to fix a lopsided society so there's a level playing ground and level opportunities for everybody." That's not something anyone could argue with, and yet...

Is London more broken than this? Does the city need more intervention? We can hear Walker's voice now, as she complains about the lack of political will — "it's always presented as 'equality is dead hard and we'll get to it when we fix everything else' and it's just not a priority".

We're not saying we should ignore equality until we've fixed the housing crisis or got knife crime under control. There are serious issues for everyone in this city, some of which affect women more than others. And maybe, we feel, the Women's Equality Party — despite being a radical concept — isn't pushing the boundaries far enough when it comes to policy.

Last Updated 30 March 2016

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The party would be much more believable if the name wasn't such an oxymoron. It's either a women's party or an equality party.