Sandi Toksvig has made her career out of comedy, so why is she risking it all by fronting a new political party aimed at ending the gender divide? Sarah Freeman reports.
WhEn Sandi Toksvig announced she was quitting Radio 4’s News Quiz to spend more time in politics, it sounded like the ultimate well-crafted gag. But Toksvig was serious and the Women’s Equality Party is proving no joke.
Born out of frustration and a recognition that if you want something doing you might as well do it yourself, the WEP’s growth is impressive. In the year or so since Toksvig first mooted the idea over a cup of coffee with friends, the party has attracted 45,000 members and now boasts 70 branches across the country.
Come May it will be represented in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Assembly elections and its crowd-funding campaign to support candidates on the election trail reached its £50,000 target with ease.
While critics have suggested the party’s manifesto is a little woolly and its aims, while aspirational, are unachievable, WEP’s candidates will be championing policies like 50/50 quotas for women on corporate boards and executive committees within 10 years and a requirement on all businesses with 250 or more employees to publish annual reports detailing pay and working hours, broken down by gender, disability and ethnicity.
“Within 10 years we would like for there to be gender equality and it’s perfectly doable,” says Toksvig, who founded the WEP with journalists Catherine Mayer and Sophie Walker. “It’s fully costed, all our proposals are pragmatic and it certainly needs doing. In London, for example, a woman is beaten up every seven minutes; domestic violence cases are horrific and shelters are closing at a frightening rate.
“In London the gender pay gap is currently 23 per cent, but if that extra money was earned and national insurance and taxes were paid, think how many hospitals we could fund. Think how many fantastic resources it would provide. It doesn’t make financial sense in this country not to fully employ women and pay them properly.”
The main criticism levelled at the WEP is that it’s too niche, appealing only to a certain type of woman. They mean white, Oxbridge educated and middle class. Toksvig, who graduated with a first class law degree from Cambridge, certainly ticks all those boxes, but she insists the party is a much broader church.
“Probably the biggest misconception about me is that I am posh,” she says. “It’s my accent, but that’s fake because I had an American accent all throughout my childhood which comes back when I’m tired. People think I am from money, but I’m not at all. We are people from the Tory party, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip. We honestly have people from every political walk of life saying, ‘shall we stop messing about and get on with it?’
“The World Economic Forum estimates that at the current rate of change women will have achieved equality in 118 years from today. I am not going to be alive then and I would like to see it happen much sooner. The WEP is about me not wanting to shout at the television anymore, but deciding to get up and do something about it.”
Launching a political party is one thing. Sustaining the momentum quite another. It’s one of the reasons why Toksvig is about to embark on a new live tour. Called Politically Incorrect, she will be playing six dates this month and next. Part stand-up, part political rally, such is Toksvig draw that the event at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds in March is already a sell out.
“I’m very serious about the party and every penny from the tour is going to the WEP coffers because it’s really expensive to run. I’m not making tuppence myself. The first half of the show is really just a bit of fun, but the second half is a little more about history, where we are in terms of the world and why I’ve started a political party.
“Jokes are a great way to open the door. What you do is you say, ‘This is funny and this is funny and this is funny’. Then you go, ‘Do you understand why, when you think about it, it’s maybe not as funny as you thought?”
Toksvig is guaranteed a sympathetic crowd, but the real test will come at the ballot box. While Walker would need an unlikely turn of events to beat either the Conservative’s Zac Goldsmith or Labour’s Sadiq Kahn to the position of London Mayor, success will be judged on how much of a dint she and the other candidates make on traditional voting lines.
However, even before the polls open the party is already claiming it is making a difference. By way of evidence it cites the fact that the government has recently announced plans to force big employers to publish more information about gender pay imbalances among their workforce.
It’s also beginning to amass a bit of a following on Twitter with in excess of 19,000 followers. By way of comparison Ukip has 120,000 and the Lib Dems 116,000. Toksvig recognises the benefits that social media can bring to a party like WEP, but she does worry that it may also be part of the problem.
“I think we need to find a way to regulate it; we need to find a way to stop women being so maligned on social media,” she says. “It’s very small minded voices speaking as loudly as they can. It’s a wonderful tool for communication, but it’s so much the Wild West at the moment.
“I think at some point it will be regulated, but it mostly doesn’t interest me very much. I’d much rather meet people for real. I’d much rather talk to you than for us to have a text exchange. I don’t need to keep telling people what I’m having for dinner and posting photographs of my lunch.”
In fact Toksvig, who is about to step into Stephen Fry’s shoes as the host of QI, has quite traditional tastes. If you happen to catch her backstage during her tour she will likely be knitting or reading a classic novel. At the moment it’s George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss.
“I’m really very undemanding,” she says. “I like a cup of tea but I’m not bothered if there isn’t one. I usually bring a bottle of water myself. I’m quite low maintenance. It’s a very Danish notion to believe that you are no better than anybody else and you’re no better than you should be. I just turn up and do my job.
“I often think one of the reasons I went into showbusiness is because I love the theatre, but I’m claustrophobic and don’t like sitting in the audience. On stage you get loads of space. One of the real joys of a show like this is that you never quite know what will happen.
“I remember doing a Q&A in Bradford and one woman asked me what my bra size was. I couldn’t remember, so she came up and had a look. That’s my favourite part of the show because it’s a chance to talk about something that hadn’t occurred to you. The unexpected is always the best bit.”
If it’s unpredictability she loves, Toksvig’s move into politics may just be the best thing she has ever done.