Joy, expression and anything but ‘politics as usual’
I’ve never attended a political party conference before. Though I am politically active, and follow politics with interest, party politics often leaves me feeling disappointed. The egos, the self-aggrandisement, the competitiveness, the point-scoring debating style, the lack of women’s voices, lack of diversity, sleep-inducing procedural points, the in-fighting causing missed opportunities to actually make a difference to society, the disconnect between party leaders and the lives of most people. But I couldn’t miss the chance to be at the first ever Women’s Equality Party Conference.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I did feel a sense of occasion, a sense of optimism and hope at this historic first. Travelling with a group of women and girls up to Manchester, you could feel the sense of anticipation among us on the journey.
We arrived early and had the opportunity to watch the gathering grow as more and more people arrived. The growing buzz of so many women joining together for this brand new happening in politics that was, for once, led by women and speaking directly to women’s lived experiences – it’s hard to describe the joy and the sense of ‘could this finally be what I’ve been waiting for?’ in the atmosphere.
So different to the usual formality and grey-suited masses seen on the televised Party Conferences, this was a huge room full of colour, warm welcomes, laughter, vibrancy, excitement and joy. The rapturous applause and whooping as each speaker opened the conference was emotional. It was palpable. It was so refreshingly unlike ‘politics as usual’.
Catherine Mayer and Sophie Walker modelled a new kind of leadership – great presence, insight, compassion, expressive communication, passion for change and openness. An openness to more than just feedback – an invitation to all of us to shape this new party and its policies. An acknowledgement that the WEP is new, needs greater diversity and needs to listen, to learn and to invent a new model of how a political party could be.
Sandi Toksvig was engaging, hilarious and vitally spot-on as she reviewed the absence of women from the historical record and political decision-making. And then she stepped away from the microphone to open it up to everyone present to have their voice heard. She encouraged us to be part of this moment, to share our story or ideas, our hopes for the party, or even simply to come and say our name out loud. She offered to hold our hand if we felt nervous. She asked each speaker to also take a piece of lego and add it to a new build, piece by piece, each of us adding a brick, symbolically being part of building this new movement together.
What followed was incredibly moving, unforgettable. The formality of so many stifling and unengaging political, institutional or corporate conferences would have generated few volunteers to take the stage. But there was a huge swell of women and girls moved to speak up, to seize this moment, to have their few minutes, to have their voices heard. Women survivors of violence, cancer and discrimination spoke up; activists, fundraisers, scientists, artists, mums, community organisers, poets, all spoke up. Young girls took a moment, overcoming fear to address the huge audience, to say they were glad to be here. Each was gifted loud applause and cheers.
And this was just the opening night of conference. On the journey back we were buzzing and making plans, identifying steps that we could each take to act upon the inspiration of this historic moment.
The challenge now is to keep that momentum. It’s a brave ambition to create a new political party in a totally different way to the ones we’ve known for so long. To dare to re-write the rules, to acknowledge that men have set the template and that another way is possible. It asks us all to dig deep, be bold, contribute in any way we can and know that collectively we can change the course of history, of HERstory, of OUR STORY, of the world we pass on to the next generation.