MATT WITHERS talks to Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, about the inequities highlighted by the pandemic, working in Boris Johnson’s City Hall and an unlikely political inspiration.
For reasons that researchers are still investigating, Covid-19 appears to be taking its heaviest clinical toll on men. In many other ways, though, it is clear that it is women being disproportionately hit hardest by the pandemic.
Whether it be the gender pay gap, the impact of schools closing or domestic abuse, data suggests the measures taken to tackle the virus have been particularly harmful to women. So is this the moment for the Women’s Equality Party?
The leader of the five-year-old party, Mandu Reid, is on the phone to me from a park in Lewisham, south London. The 39-year-old, the permanent leader since January, was born in Malawi to a Malawian mother and English father. She is therefore, I venture, one of those citizens of nowhere that Theresa May warned us about.
‘Exactly, yeah,’ she says. ‘She did warn the British people about my kind.’
Reid predominantly grew up in Swaziland ‘in the twilight years of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which was just next door and so – I probably don’t need to spell it out – for us, the very existence of our family was politically significant if you think about it.
‘Because I was a mixed-race child with a white father and a black mother in a culture that was fading out – of course it was, it was on its last legs – but it was socially and legally prohibited for the races to mix.
‘So for me growing up in that environment and attending an international secondary school, I guess I had a very heightened awareness from the beginning of life of injustice and prejudice.’
Moving to the UK to attend sixth form, she went on to study at the LSE before going on to a career in project and programme management at the Treasury, Department for Culture, Media and Sport and London’s City Hall under three different mayors (Boris Johnson, she says in what is unlikely to be the revelation of the interview, ‘didn’t poke around in the detail hardly at all’).
What might be more of a surprise is that she only came to feminism in her 20s, her focus previously being on the racial inequality she saw ‘in vivid technicolour’.
‘It wasn’t as obvious to me that inequality between men and women was such a kind of toxic prevailing problem,’ she says.
‘And I think it was more a gradual thing – I didn’t have a big bang moment, but I just started as a young woman to see how I had to navigate things in the world that young men my age didn’t.
‘Just really simple things. Feeling safe at night in a city like London, which isn’t the most dangerous place in the world, but for me I just compared the experience of moving through the world to my male peers and I just thought ‘hang on a minute, there’s, like, something awry here’. And that just caused… it wasn’t like a lightbulb moment, but I’m a very kind of like, curious, inquisitive person and it created almost a line of enquiry, right?’
After reading ‘a few classic feminist texts’, and seeing the experiences she’d had being echoed, ‘it really just burgeoned from there’, she says.
But it was a particular difficult time in Reid’s life – what she calls a ‘stitch-up moment’ – which would draw her to the Women’s Equality Party, when she became pregnant at the age of 33.
‘I had to make a decision about what to do,’ she says.
‘And the man was significantly younger than me, his career was less kind of advanced and promising than me yet neither of us could imagine a situation where I wasn’t going to be the sole care-giver of that child.
‘And that really struck home when I subsequently discovered the Women’s Equality Party policies. Because I ended up having an abortion. I didn’t feel I could honour the plans and ambitions I had for my life and be a single parent and stay sane and stay afloat financially.
‘So when I understood the Women’s Equality Party policies of properly shared parental leave between both parents, and free universal childcare from the age of parental leave to age five, it honestly would have enabled me to make a different choice.
‘I was already a feminist at that point but it solidified me, I suppose, that experience, that realisation of how politics isn’t anywhere near ambitious enough when it comes to trying to make equality between men and women a reality.’
The traditional route for a liberal, politically engaged young woman might seem to have been to join, say, the Labour Party and make the arguments for that policy agenda from within, I say. Actually, Reid says, she attempted that but just grew frustrated.
‘I joined the Labour Party in 2010 and I tried to get involved locally but I found it very unsatisfactory.
‘I found the levels of ambition for the things I believed in insufficient. It always felt like inequality between men and women was a footnote.
‘It always felt like their economic policies kind of gave a cursory nod to those issues that were nowhere near radical enough and women were gonna have to wait a hundred f***ing years if we were gonna go at the pace of the party that positioned itself as fighting for us in that regard.’
(Under a policy Reid calls ‘political polyamory’ the Women’s Equality Party allows members to also be in another political party. ‘We’ll welcome you with open arms. Just don’t tell the Labour Party, they’ll chuck you out.’)
Eventually she became acting leader last year when her predecessor, Sophie Walker, stepped down. She was due to run for leader but her opponent pulled out, making her permanent leader in January. The party now has 30,000 members across 70 branches with the largest concentrations in London, Leeds and Manchester.
Last year I attended the launch of its European election campaign in Hackney, east London. It was, I venture, very Hackney in the make-up of its attendees, more Portlandia than, say, Portsmouth. I wonder if that was a fair representation of the membership.
‘I don’t think it’s quite that simple,’ says Reid.
‘We’re only five years old. People who came on board in the very early days – I think it probably is fair to suggest they were from, I guess, a narrower demographic, but what’s happened over time is that we’ve come to the attention of a much broader constituency of mainly women – although since I’ve been leader more men have joined.
‘It’s definitely changing. But I think it’s a completely fair assessment that in the early days, and perhaps because, you know, [the party’s co-founders] Catherine Mayer, Sandi Toksvig and Sophie Walker, the previous leader, were the visible figureheads, it attracted people who had comparable backgrounds. I’m very different from all of them, I have very different networks, I have a completely different make-up.’
What is telling now is that some of the issues which the Women’s Equality Party has campaigned on since its inception, says Reid, are coming into sharper focus as the coronavirus crisis highlights chronic deficiencies in the state.
‘And the other thing that’s happened is the public appetite for an understanding of how important these issues are has gone through the roof in the space of just a couple of months,’ she says.
‘And so whereas it was seen as like a zany thing to do to formulate a manifesto around care and the contribution care makes to the economy – now people are looking at that and seeing how, on so many levels, it makes sense.
‘If we had an economy that recognised both paid care work and unpaid care work in a more meaningful way we would have had a more resilient economy that could have coped better with the catastrophic impact of a crisis like this.
‘You know how people talk about how the Covid crisis is a great leveller? Well, I talk about it as the great revealer. It reveals all these things that we have been talking about for so long, and in some cases it’s aggravated, you know, inequalities and dysfunctions in our society.’
It is also horrific to think of what may have being going on behind closed doors during lockdown. The domestic violence charity Refuge has reported that visits to its website have increased 10-fold since the nation was confined to home.
‘It’s one of the most prevalent crimes in the country,’ says Reid. ‘You’re talking about 2.4 million victims every single year, the vast majority of them women.
‘You know, do a comparison between that and Covid deaths. That is an epidemic in its own right. And yet, until Covid struck, were there any calls for the equivalent of PPE for that epidemic? Were there any calls for the equivalent of a vaccination for the epidemic of domestic violence? No.
‘In fact the opposite was happening: services were being slashed and burned and stripped back by a government who at every turn removed funding from some of the most vulnerable people in our community.’
Reid had been due to be the party’s candidate for London mayor this year in a poll postponed until 2021. While she concedes she was an ‘outside bet’, they were genuinely hopeful of getting their first seat on the London Assembly.
And intriguingly, while the Women’s Equality Party was, and remains, firmly anti-Brexit, Reid draws an inspiration from the unlikeliest of figures – Nigel Farage.
‘His political capital went from zero to through the roof because he managed to position himself as the spokesman for these big swathes of the British voting public who felt like they hadn’t been and weren’t being listened to,’ she says.
‘And so the puzzle for me is how do we highlight what’s going on for women and also the way that’s negatively affecting men as well? How do we create that groundswell of support that gives extra political capital to the ideas that we’re trying to promote and what our party’s trying to achieve?
‘The way Nigel Farage and UKIP did that provides some inspiration. And I only mean inspiration for the mechanics, because I would argue that his cause was nefarious whereas ours is noble. So my work is very much around using the tactics that served him and UKIP so well towards what we’re trying to achieve.’
Using Farage for good? That would be genuinely revolutionary.