Sophie Walker: London is the worst place to live in the UK if you’re a woman
From transport to tech, the latest candidate in the race for City Hall thinks every issue should be talked about from a woman's point of view. Sophie Walker talks about her plans for the capital
She’s got a steely edge, a touch of a Scottish accent that hangs like a threat in her sentences, and eyes that challenge you to disagree. She’s what men call women they fear: formidable. And as leader of the Women’s Equality Party (WE) she is its chosen candidate for the London mayoral election.
This is the first test of the party that sprung spontaneously to life last March when former Time magazine journalist and Prince Charles biographer Catherine Mayer suggested a women’s party at the Women of the World Festival.
A group of women spontaneously coalesced, Sandi Toksvig arrived as master of ceremonies, and it has been rolling ever since, clocking up tens of thousands of members and branches across the country.
A good start for a new party, but a tilt at becoming Mayor of the greatest city in the world? You could see where the ambition came from.
The WE offices are far from glamorous — a grimy hallway, grey carpets, and in need of a lick of paint. But walk out of the door and look across the More London Riverside development and there is City Hall, glistening in some rare winter sun. Why not aim for the building once dubbed by former mayor Ken Livingstone as “the glass testicle”?
Why not run for Mayor, says Walker, a former Reuters journalist. “Let’s make London the first city in the world where men and women are equal.” What about Iceland, Sweden? “Oh, you can tick off the Nordics but why let them have all the good gender data — let’s do it here.”
Her first public outing was at last night’s Evening Standard mayoral hustings, where the seven-strong line-up was already well balanced in terms of gender — both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats have fielded women as candidates.
Walker’s initial problem was that every answer she gave started “when you think about it in terms of women” but as the questions poured in — from radicalisation to air pollution — she worked out how to play the audience. “You are probably wondering how I am going to answer this one from a woman’s point of view...” she said, like a comedian who has developed a running gag. They creased up laughing.
It was an assured performance, so much so that when the debate was over Labour’s Sadiq Khan went to exchange email addresses with Mayer, with the words “we should talk” and Zac Goldsmith shook her hand.
The question that arises over and over again is what the WE, with its easily agreeable non-partisan agenda, can actually do in practical terms.
The realms of the mayoralty — architecture, all that engineering and concrete, the guns and shields of policing and the heft of fire brigades, and all the geekery of transport and engines — have historically been gendered male, yet these are the hefty portfolios of the Mayor’s office.
The WE’s tactic is to deliberately start talking about them from another point of view. No view on the expansion of the overground rail network? Why should we have one, is essentially what Walker is saying, when we can’t get the basics of transport right for families. Zac offering a new tech plan for London? Where are the women, she asks — they are hugely under-represented in the sector.
Depending on where life has placed you on the social spectrum you might think London, with its urbane outlook, has fewer problems for women when it comes to liberty to work than the rest of the country. But when Walker gets on to employment she has some surprising statistics on the disparity between men and women in the capital, which may well end up being the fire of her campaign.
“It is very easy to be quite smug about London and to say it is the best place in the UK. Actually, London is the worst place to live in the UK if you are a woman; in London women are more likely to be living in poverty. The gender pay gap in the UK is about 15 per cent. In London it is 23 per cent. Women in Britain are more likely to be doing part-time jobs because they juggle it to try and find flexible working around the childcare.”
Isn’t London perhaps skewed, given the number of middle-class families where one parent, usually the mother, can choose to stay at home, supported by a high-earning partner? “A lot of women do not have that choice,” she shoots back. She has two children of her own and two stepchildren. “Maternal unemployment is higher in London than in other parts of the UK and childcare costs are a third more expensive than anywhere else in the country. This is like a really concentrated version of what’s not right everywhere else.”
So what would she do about it? “You subsidise them.” From where? “The Mayor’s budget.” But it’s not one of his responsibilities. “If we are going to look at what Boris has done, getting his fingers into whatever pies he fancies, well why not actually get involved in something that is going to involve a structural change to the four million women in London who are being overlooked right now?”
She goes further and says she’d also look at subsiding care for the elderly and disabled, freeing up the women currently doing those jobs to get them into the workforce.
Walker stumbles a little on what effect the WE would have on the fire brigade but suggests the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority might benefit from looking at where it has gone wrong on its board numbers: only two of the 17 are women.
Since its launch last summer, WE has built up a list of around 45,000 members and supporters
On policing and transport the WE message begins to crystallise. “London’s got lots of problems,” says Walker. “We talk about knife crime, which needs to be addressed, a very serious issue which affects primarily young men in London. There’s this other big crime in London, that affects primarily women: over the past year 3,000 rapes were reported. We know that on average about one in 10 are reported. So there are around 30,000 rapes in London per year. That works out at an average of three rapes every hour. The rate of knife crime is one per hour. Where is the outcry?”
She cites Croydon, Southwark and Islington as places where the numbers have jumped. “And a 79 per cent increase in rape in Richmond. Do you know anyone in Richmond who is talking about it?”
On transport too, the WE finds an angle neglected by its contenders — women ferrying their children around. “We are in the absurd situation where we demonise car users, a lot of whom are people with children and buggies because buses come along and they’ve already got a buggy or a wheelchair- user on board — parents and wheelchair-users are pitted against each other for this small space.”
That’s not to say that the WE is going to be new champion of city motoring now that Jeremy Clarkson has left the BBC. Walker’s point is that you have to look not just at how to expand London’s public transport but how to make it functional, particularly for those with children.
What the WE also has is ground forces. Since its launch last summer it has built up a list of around 45,000 members and supporters, a sizeable tranche of which are in London.
There are 10 local branches, from Lewisham and Hammersmith to Hackney, and a list of London Assembly candidates that shows some real diversity — both social and ethnic. Candidates range from Isabelle Parasram, a barrister and founder of Greycoat Law Chambers of Indo-Caribbean heritage, to Jacquelyn Guderley, who co-founded Stemettes, a social enterprise that inspires young females to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and maths.
In fact the only way in which the party isn’t diverse is that it hasn’t fielded a man, something to which the party has no ideological objection — it is just that the opportunity hasn’t arisen yet.
But can it really take City Hall? With its London support base, some seats on the London Assembly through the top-up system are clearly within its sights. “Yes, I want to be Mayor,” says Walker, but “it will be a success if all the other candidates start standing up and saying ‘Well, I’m actually the candidate for women’s equality’. That’s a win, right?”