Women’s Equality Party leader Sophie Walker delivered the first salvo of the election by going head to head with Shipley MP Philip Davies. But can she win? Sarah Freeman reports.
There’s been a last minute change of venue. Instead of the Interlude Tea Rooms, Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, has decamped to Fanny’s Ale House in Shipley with a few of her campaign team.
“I know,” says head of communications Catherine Riley, recognising the location offers punchlines a plenty to detractors of Britain’s newest political party. It was formed by broadcaster Sandi Toksvig and journalist Catherine Meyer and given it’s just warming up for its biggest fight, with Walker having announced that she will be standing against Shipley MP Philip Davies in June’s General Election, they are not in the business of giving easy ammunition to their opponents.
“I’ve had him on my radar for some time,” says Walker, a former Reuters journalist who was one of the WEP’s earliest members. “I’ve always been interested in politics, but there was definitely a moment when I thought, ‘No one is going to come to my rescue. If I want to change things, I’m going to have to do it myself’.”
Walker traces her recent political awakening to her daughter Grace’s autism diagnosis. Shocked by both the lack of support and understanding of the condition, she became an activist and a fundraiser on behalf of the National Autistic Society.
“It was just wretched. I felt helpless. The one thing I thought I could do was run marathons and raise money, so that’s what I did.”
The endurance training has been put on hold for the moment, but as she grabs a packet of Scampi Fries after a day of meetings before the WEP’s official campaign launch in Shipley, Walker hopes the hours spent pounding the streets will stand her in good stead during the next six weeks.
“Total disillusionment really set in at the General Election,” she says. “I was surprised at how many of the big parties thought they already had my vote in their pocket and yet were doing nothing that resonated with my life or ambitions. As a mother of a child with autism I felt like we were a special interest group, the kind that gets a brief mention on the back page of a political manifesto. That wasn’t enough for me.
“I was told as a girl growing up that I could have everything, but I couldn’t. There’s the day to day casual sexism, there’s the fact I really felt I had to fight for a place at the table when it came to my career and then when I had children I just didn’t see the men in the office who were parents performing the same juggling act I did.
“When I heard about the WEP I felt I had found my political home and now it honestly does feel like all parts of my life have come together.”
The WEP is still finalising its manifesto and haven’t yet revealed how many other candidates they will field. They will be publicity opportunities for another day, but support for their cause appears to be growing.
In 18 months they have attracted 65,000 members and registered supporters. While they won’t reveal the split, it’s no secret that part of the success has been allowing joint membership so paid up Lib Dems, Labourites and Conservatives can also sign up. It’s also no secret that for the WEP membership Philip Davis has long been symbolic of everything they see as being wrong with politics.
“As a woman, as a mother, as a carer and as someone who believes there is a better way to do things, I have watched his pronouncements with horror for many months,” says Walker. Being a local MP is a privilege, and yet time again Philip Davies seems to use his position to indulge his love of parliamentarian theatrics.”
Walker is referring to the MP’s history of filibustering. Under House of Common rules, Private Members Bills can be blocked if the debate runs on leaving no time for a vote. In February Davies spoke for 90 minutes to kybosh a bill aimed at combating violence against women and in 2015 used the same tactic to quash a proposal to give carers free hospital parking. As a result he has been portrayed in some quarters as Westminster’s pantomime villain.
“In 12 years as an MP I have never said anything which could be described as being unfavourable to women,” says Davies. “All I have ever argued is that men and women should be treated the same when it comes to being victims of crime, in a court of law, whatever. As for discriminating against carers, it’s nonsense. When my niece was 11 years old she was diagnosed with cancer and my sister had to give up work to look after her. I don’t need anyone to tell me how much that can impact a family financially and emotionally, but the fact was the hospital parking legislation which was being proposed was not fit for purpose. Had it gone through one in six carers would have benefitted from free parking, but five in six would have ended up paying more. Now that doesn’t seem right to me.
“Also under parliamentary rules had 100 MPs who were in favour of these bills turned up to the debate, they would have been automatically passed. They didn’t.”
Back in Fanny’s Ale House, Walker says that while she has no direct links to Shipley - she was born in Blackpool, grew up in Glasgow and now lives in London with her husband and two daughters, she has taken the temperature of the place.
“I think Philip Davies has underestimated just how cross the community he was elected to represent is about his behaviour. While we will be unveiling full details of a manifesto shortly, I am very clear on the mandate I am running on here. It’s about affordable childcare, it’s about closing the gender pay gap, it’s about equal parenting, ending violence against women and equality in education, business and politics.”
However, with the country on the brink of severing its ties with the EU it may take more than that to overturn Davies’ not insubstantial 9,624 majority and convince the wider electorate that the WEP is a credible alternative.
“This is a seat which has swung between Labour and Conservative and I have no reason to doubt it could swing our way,” says Walker. “Politics is changing. There has been a huge rejection of the old way of doing things. The traditional divide between right and left has fractured and the old tribal allegiances, which once governed how people vote, no longer exist. My parents were northern and working class and while they went on a lot of marches they still had that generational thing of just shut up and get on with it. For my generation that’s not good enough and I honestly believe that if you can design a system that puts the people whose voices are rarely heard at forefront then it will be better for all of us.”
On the way back to the car, I conduct a quick straw poll. Of the five people I meet, two aren’t planning to vote at all, one who voted Leave in the Referendum says they hope Davies will be re-elected, the fourth is undecided and the fifth didn’t realise there was a General Election.
Hardly scientific, but as Walker herself might say, in Shipley it seems that everything is up for grabs.