'London buses are a symbol of inequality' - Interview with Sophie Walker of the Women's Equality Party

There are around four million women living in London, but the city’s mayoral elections have so far been totally dominated by men.

Whether it was Ken Livingstone and Steve Norris in 2000 and 2004, the Boris and Ken show in 2008 and 2012, or the Zac and Sadiq show in 2016, London politics has often felt like a game for men only.

Neither of the two main parties in London have ever fielded a female mayoral candidate. Labour came close in 2004, selecting London Assembly member Nicky Gavron, only to replace her with Ken at the last minute. On the Conservative side, not a single woman even made it onto their mayoral shortlist last year after respected Westminster Council leader Philippa Roe was excluded. Labour again came close to fielding a woman last year, with voters telling pollsters that Tessa Jowell was their preferred choice for the selection. However, Labour party members felt differently and once again went for a male candidate.

And it’s not just in London. Right across the country there is an inherent bias towards male candidates in mayoral contests. Of the 18 directly-elected mayors in England and Wales, just four are women.

So why is this? What is is about mayoral politics, which makes it so male-dominated?

“There are lots of barriers to women entering politics and that’s seen in the number of women mayors there are,” Sophie Walker, who is standing as the Women’s Equality Party candidate for London mayor, tells me.

“But it’s also seen in the fact that men outnumber women by two to one in Parliament.

"The reasons why women are not as represented in politics is the same reason they are being left behind in our workplaces and that is because they simply don’t have equality of opportunity. First of all it’s very expensive to become an MP and two thirds of the poorest people in the country are women. Women are more likely to be working in low-paid part-time work which fits around their childcare responsibilities.

"I also think many women are put off by the brawling, bullying approach that we see depicted in the House of Commons.”

Walker is a former journalist and author, who turned to politics after seeing the struggles faced by her daughters.

“When my daughter was diagnosed with autism I realised how little support there was and how little understanding there was of her experience as a young woman with Aspergers. It felt like she was being doubly discriminated against [for being female]. It was a shock to me.”

“Juggling being a parent and a career, I had obviously experienced my own fair share of the barriers that women have to navigate, but it was really that push that came when my daughter got that diagnosis [which] threw everything into very sharp relief.

"I realised that if you want to get things changed and they’re not changing fast enough, then you can do it yourself.”

Walker decided to join the WEP after seeing how women’s issues had been ignored by the major parties.

“This time last year I was wondering who to vote for and I felt very frustrated that none of the other political parties were speaking to me and my needs and in many respects they had relegated my experiences to an afterthought.

"I think women are still seen as a special interest issue that sits at the back of the manifesto when you’ve done all the serious stuff.

"And then I heard that the Women’s Equality Party was being put together and I put my hand up and said ‘what can I do to get involved?’ I went to the first meeting and expected to be putting out chairs and instead I was asked to speak and so I spoke about the challenges of equal parenting and how hard it is for both sexes to feel like they’ve got a real choice in how they put all those different parts of their lives together.

"It was very clear that there was a room full of hundreds of people who were feeling similarly frustrated that they weren’t hearing the support and imaginative policies that they wanted to hear from the other parties. It just took off like a rocket and I’m not surprised. We really tapped into a deep sense of frustration.”

The reaction to the WEP and Walker has not been wholly positive. Some men have criticised them for using the local platform of the mayoral election for what is is really a national campaign. Walker disagrees.

“I keep on being told that my campaign is niche, that I am some sort of oddity because we are speaking up for women, but actually women make up half the population and its so important their voices are heard. Because when they are, everything works better. We are not going to have a properly functioning society, or economy, when half the country can’t contribute.”

She says women’s inequality is a particular problem in London.

“We have this idea of London being the best place in the world to be, but actually if you are a woman in London you are statistically more likely to be unemployed, to be living in poverty, to be in danger on the streets and on the public transport systems. And yet again, this is London’s fifth election for mayor and for the fifth time we are being told this is a choice between two men, neither of whom are really putting women’s needs anywhere near the centre of their manifestos.

"And this is why I want to stand because there are four million women living in London and I think any plan for London is not going to work unless it has their needs at the heart of it.”

She tells me she would directly subsidise childcare from the age of nine months if elected mayor. This would be a huge expense for a body which aside from transport and policing, has relatively little spending power.

“I think it’s a question of priorities,” she says.

“When you start to subsidise childcare there’s a huge positive boost for the economy. If you invest two per cent of GDP in caring jobs, then you create 1.5 million jobs in the UK. There’s always this idea that we have to invest in infrastructure, that men’s jobs are an investment but that women’s jobs, like care, are an expense. We have to turn that idea on its head.”

She says she would also focus more transport spending on women, including designing new female-friendly buses.

“The London bus is an icon of the capital, but unfortunately it’s a symbol of the inequality of the capital because we have a crazy situation where people with pushchairs and people using wheelchairs have to compete for a tiny bit of space. So let’s build a bus that everybody can get on.”

She says that City Hall’s cycling policy is also too focused on men.

“Cycling in London is a bit of an extreme sport. It’s mainly men in lycra going hell for leather. I’m very fit and healthy and would like to cycle but it doesn’t appeal to me at all.

"We know that women make only 25% of the cycle journeys in London but they account for 40% of the deaths from cycle accidents, which is something we need to address.

So how would she change that?

"What we need to do is make a situation where women feel more comfortable cycling around the city, by building more cycling facilities, more shower facilities at schools for example. We need to continue building the cycle superhighway [segregated cycle tracks on main roads] but also quietways [backstreet routes].

"It would be great to be able to just cycle at your own pace. I’d love to cycle in with my daughter and just pootle along without feeling like we’re getting in everybody’s way and it’s all a bit frightening.”

The polls suggest that Walker has little chance of becoming mayor in a few weeks time, but that isn’t her real aim. For the WEP, this is more about raising the issues.

So far it does appear to have had some effect. At the hustings where Walker has appeared, women’s issues have inevitably been discussed more frequently. Other candidates have also taken note. The current frontrunner, Sadiq Khan, made tackling women’s inequality a big part of his manifesto launch and has promised a “gender audit” at City Hall, another WEP policy.

“I would like [rival candidates] all to steal my policies frankly,” she says.

“I’m here to get the job done. I’m here as long as it takes but I’m not here because I want to be a career politician. I’m doing this because I think equality for women is the transformative issue for London and I think any candidate has to take it seriously and I would be delighted if they all stole our policies. The challenge is for them to do it first.”

She is under no illusions about the scale of the challenge.

“At the current rate of change I will be 162 before the gender gap closes and I don’t want to wait that long. I watch my six-year-old daughter come home from school with a list of all the things the boys have told her she can’t do and shouldn’t be and shouldn’t wear and shouldn’t say.”

“There’s still a very long way to go.”

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