EWL’s Matilda Flemming attended the UK Women’s Equality Party’s first ever party conference. 1500 feminists gathered in Manchester the last weekend in November to, as party leader Sophie Walker put it, finally become a fully adult party. The party was started in spring 2015 by Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer and is the fastest growing political force in the UK - already having gained 65.000 members (UKIP in comparison has 55.000 members). So far the party has earned more than 350.000 votes in elections it has been running candidates.
In traditional British party conference style, a high profile party leader’s speech was the centerpiece of the conference. In her speech, Sophie Walker responded at length to the autumn statement, the British state budget for 2017, that was released the week preceding the conference. Walker pointed to the clearly gendered outcomes of the cuts in both taxes and benefits announced by the government: tax cuts benefit men as they on average earn more and hold more capital - while cuts to public benefits harm women, as women are more frequent users of these. On the infrastructure investments announced by the government, she said that creating jobs for men is seen as an investment by the government, while women’s jobs are seen as a costs - again pointing to the austerity politics of the government. On the upcoming trade negotiations following the Brexit-vote, she said a British trade regime is needed in which "human rights are as enforceable as investors rights".
Walker announced that the party will start to build a fair tax system in which they will radically rethink how public money is earned and spent. She also stated that childcare will be the top priority of the party, as universal childcare and shared parental leave can transform society, at home and at work it.
Walker also called for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention by the UK Parliament in a vote on December 16, and talked at length about how the funding structures for combating violence against women are broken. Paying tribute to the movement that the Women’s Equality Party has become at her helm - and encouraging all the local level activists present, she said "Individual liberty will never set us free because our oppression is structural. That’s why we need a movement."
To continue the movement building, the party spent the last day of the conference debating policy motions on topics ranging from the impact of Brexit on women’s rights to revenge porn. At the sidelines of the conference, EWL took part in a meeting led by Gudrun Schyman from Feminist Initiative in Sweden around strengthening feminist parties across Europe in light of the upcoming European Parliament elections in 2019.
A number of participants from EWL’s summer school for young feminists - including the co-directors of IC Change - played key roles at the conference. Rebecca Bunce - also appointed to the party steering committee during the conference - lead an important discussion and myth-busting session around inclusion of people with disabilities in the women’s movement. Priscilla Mensah hosted a workshop for a fully packed room about inclusion and diversity in the feminist movement and made party members discuss around privilege, white feminism, and what kind of equality it is that the party is working towards. Judging from the party activists attending the conference, it has a predominantly white membership, though Walker in her speech vowed that “learning how feminism has too often failed to understand the needs and experiences of women of colour, disabled women and LGBT+ women” will be the litmus of her leadership.
In conclusion, Women’s Equality Party - as well as its feminist sister parties across Europe - offer a politics of compassion, abundance and hope - a type of politics needed more than ever, as the politics of fear and scarcity is spreading across Europe.
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