How the Women’s Equality Party is putting abuse survivors at the heart of ‘guerrilla’ election campaign
Anahita Hossein-Pour reports on how a small party is hoping to have a big impact in tackling abuse in politics - and help women "take back power".
Eljai Morais was six months' pregnant when her partner strangled her to the floor in front of her 11-year-old daughter.
She had been sleeping with the window open and hadn’t heard his call to answer the door, so he climbed up onto her balcony and began attacking her.
“I was pushed very, very hard to the ground, my daughter was there. I tried to get to the telephone, there were slaps and strangles and things like that. It happened very quickly and it happened in front of my daughter which is terrifying, something you never want your child to see.
“We left home that night, and I didn't return there to live again, that night everything changed for me.”
Eljai lived in a refuge for a year, where she went into labour and was cut off from friends and family. She tells PoliticsHome she felt “isolated and alone”.
The court process continued the ordeal when the judge refused to allow Eljai to give evidence behind a screen in the courtroom. “We’re all grown ups here,” the now 46-year-old recalls him as saying.
“My son was six weeks old. I was very emotional, I had just given birth I hadn't seen him [ex-partner] since the night, so that forced me to actually face him which was just awful,” she adds.
It was 2004, and Eljai’s case was being heard simultaneously with the passing of domestic violence legislation, so she expected to get “some sort of justice”.
But she says: “He was given two weeks of community service which he didn't do, £500 of compensation to pay to me which he didn't pay, I never received that, and that was it.
“They caught up with him a couple of years later and he did two weeks at an open prison which he described as a holiday camp.
“I went through all of that, and he got to go to holiday camp.”
Fast forward to 2019, and Eljai is now standing as a Women’s Equality Party (WE) candidate in the December election. The party is promising an unprecedented campaign, which pits survivors of violence and sexual assault against abusive power in Westminster.
The four-year-old “start-up” party has targeted seats specifically where MPs have been accused of sexual harassment, abuse or violence but where political parties or the "Westminster establishment" have failed to conclude investigations.
“I just think it’s very, very important that as survivors we get to tell our story and to use our story in this way is incredibly empowering,” the theatre producer explains.
“By standing against MPs who have been accused of sexual harassment or abuse it puts out a message that we’re not willing to accept this in the higher echelons of politics because how can we make change if that changes doesn’t start in Westminster?”
According to WE, more than 20 MPs have been accused of violence or harassment since 2017, when the ‘Pestminster’ scandal first broke.
In 2018 a cross-party report also revealed one in five Parliamentary staffers had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour in the past year.
“It’s very daunting embarking on this at the outset because there was no template for it, there’s no precedent for how this kind of thing pans out,” WE leader Mandu Reid tells PoliticsHome.
“In the Euro [elections] we went way more traditional. We put the feminist angle on Brexit. You know what? Nobody gave a s**t.
“So when this general election came around, we scratched our heads and did some soul searching, and said ‘Let’s stop trying to play by everybody else’s rules, let's stop trying to compete in a market where we don’t have the same assets'…
“We zoomed in on something we care deeply about, but also resonates with what’s going on more broadly with politics.”
Mandu says selecting female candidates who have suffered abuse and have been “denied justice” is central to the campaign to “platform perspectives that too often get frozen out”.
PROTEST AT PROCESS
Eljai is standing in former Tory MP Charlie Elphicke’s seat in Dover. The ex-MP chose not to re-stand as a candidate as he faces a trial on three counts of sexual assault next year. He denies the charges.
Candidate Gemma Evans, who told PoliticsHome her former partner tried to kill her, is meanwhile standing against former Labour MP Ivan Lewis in Bury South, and Serena Laidley, a secondary school teacher who survived being gang raped at 17 years old, is contesting Kelvin Hopkins’ former seat in Luton North.
Gemma said while allegations against Mr Lewis, who was accused of touching a 19-year-old constituent’s leg and inviting her to his home, were not at the “same level” as her own experience, “harassment is harassment and abuse is abuse.”
“I was really, really shocked he was able to just stand down from Labour and nothing had happened,” the motivational speaker added.
Mr Lewis was suspended from Labour in November 2017 following the allegations, and a party investigation was launched. The 52-year-old ex-MP denied sexually harassing anyone but apologised if he had ever made anyone feel “awkward”.
He quit the party the following year and blasted Labour for a “unnecessary” delay in dealing with his case.
Suspended Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins was meanwhile the subject to a party investigation into sexual harassment claims two years ago, which remain unresolved as he decided to stand down at this December poll. Mr Hopkins denies the allegations and described the investigation by Labour as "very disappointing".
Initial campaigns were also launched in Mark Field’s former seat in Cities of London and Westminster, and in Jared O’Mara’s Sheffield Hallam constituency.
Mark Field was suspended as a minister after he was filmed grabbing a female Greenpeace protester by the neck, and a Whitehall investigation into his behaviour was dropped when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and sacked him from his Government. Mr Field apologised over the incident.
Former Labour turned independent MP Jared O’Mara meanwhile also apologised for sending messages during a “delusional episode” to a 20-year-old staffer who accused him of sexual harassment.
Four out of five of the original MPs the party planned to stand against have since decided to step down.
“A lot of what we’re doing sometimes on the surface looks like a really personal attack on an individual, but if each of these cases had been handled better and had been handled differently and there had been processes to protect our legislature, we wouldn’t be making such a fuss,” Mandu explained.
“We’re not presuming guilt but what we’re saying is these allegations have been made and they have not been properly dealt with.”
In tactics that shy away from traditional tribal politics, WE is also reaching out to other rival parties competing in their constituencies to adopt their key policies on tackling violence against women and girls in exchange for WE candidates standing down.
Mandu, who used to work at City Hall under Boris Johnson, is confident the party can weaponise its “modest” vote share and 35,000 members to persuade parties to do business with the movement.
This strategy was a success in striking a deal with the Liberal Democrats in the Cities of London and Westminster and Sheffield Hallam target seats.
Subsequently rape survivor, journalist and Two Cities candidate Jenn Selby stepped aside in the contest.
The Lib Dems agreed to hike its offer on the number of free childcare hours, and to commit to sustainable funding in a three-year rolling grant model for refuges and services for women fleeing violence.
Another red line agreed to by the Lib Dems was to reform the Recall Act, expanding the criteria to give constituents the power to challenge MPs found guilty of sexual harassment or abuse.
“It’s a guerrilla tactic in a way that is based on the reality of the political climate that we’re in, the limited shoe-string resources we have to operate with,” Mandu says.
“Our approach is we are trying to find ways to participate in this election even though the system is wildly rigged against us as a small party, we’re trying to find ways of what we believe in, in what the other parties neglect to be raised up the ladder.
“A lot of people say ‘yeah that’s just not how things are’. I’m like, that’s just total bullsh*t. I’m sorry. This is about political will.”
Contact with Labour’s top team has proven more difficult, Mandu says, with the 38-year-old leader describing Jeremy Corbyn’s party as more “tribal”. Individual Labour candidates have, however, reached out to collaborate.
But regardless of the stance taken by Labour HQ, WE activists will be campaigning for Labour’s Rosie Duffield to win back her marginal seat in Canterbury because of her alignment with the party on key issues.
Ms Duffield hit the headlines last month for speaking out in the Commons about her own experience of domestic abuse.
Meanwhile Mandu, who has been in post as party chief for just eight months and already led the party through three polls, is looking forward to growing the party post-election.
"It's very hard for us as a small party to bounce from election to election to election," she admits.
In a much-hoped for period of stability after the snap vote, she says WE will look to increase the awareness of its party influence and team up with All-Party Parliamentary Groups in the Commons.
Electoral reform will be high on the priority list, as well as trying to boost male supporters within the party’s ranks, who currently make up less than 5% of members.
In the longer-term, the party hopes to get its foot in the door of Westminster and form a ‘women’s caucus’ in Parliament, similar to the power voting blocks seen in US and EU politics.
“I want to give as many women as possible a chance to feel powerful in a world that doesn’t naturally create the conditions where we do so - our five candidates is just one example of that,” Mandu says.
“But I want to see the way they were able to take back power replicated up and down the country.”
That’s a hope shared by Gemma as she fights to become an MP. “To know I’m being part of that movement and I’m helping on the forefront and help march forward to say this is wrong. That makes me feel very proud and very passionate,” she says.