Collaborative politics and audience engagement

By Rebecca Manson Jones, ITC Member

In 2012, I was invited to a conference in Norway to accept an award for innovation in staging Ibsen. In my adaptation of An Enemy of the People I’d feminized Doctor Stockmann. At conference, there was a lady minding a baby. I asked who she was – “oh that’s Kristi’s grandma, she’s also the previous artistic director of our national theatre and a former minister of the arts”. Oh for a CV like that.

Today, I’m heading out door knocking with a team of volunteers to tell people about the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) the newest and fastest-growing national political party. WEP is standing in the London Mayoral and Greater London Assembly Elections, the Welsh and Scottish Assembly Elections on 5th May. With 47,000 members and supporters and 73 branches nationwide, WEP is an already distinct voice in politics. You may have heard our founding story: in two events at the WOW festival at the South Bank Centre in 2015, Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer both independently stated their interest in starting a Women’s Equality Party. The rest is the little bit of history that we’re making.

I’m a theatre director. I never dreamed of standing as a candidate but I was drawn to stand on the London List for WEP because our proposal is about doing politics differently - inclusively and collaboratively - and aiming fundamentally to improve our society by putting women’s concerns at the centre of the political agenda. We are calling on our major institutions to address the absence of women in leadership roles, close the pay gap, the parenting and caring conundrum, end the violence which blights women’s lives, sort out media representation –from portrayal on stage, screen, on panels, marketing materials, editorial to exclusion from the UK’s cultural story; end the gender divide in education and aspiration.

Campaigning with WEP sometimes feels like an audience development programme. A few people have said that we risk breaking up the left or that a vote for us would be wasted. That argument reminds me of when the artistic director of a bigger theatre than the one I was running, told me he didn’t want me stealing his audience. My reaction: audience development is an ongoing process, we never stop. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told that there’s no audience and I’ve gone and found them. There are so many people currently disengaged with politics: just 1% of voting age people is a member of a political party. WEP is also speaking to people who haven’t voted in some while and if we take your audience, maybe that’s because you weren’t paying them enough attention. And WEP is here to help, aiming to work with other parties to achieve our goals. (We’d be happy to go out of business if the other parties enact our policies) A little like an effective Diversity policy, WEP should be unnecessary.

Assumptions have been made about WEP’s diversity: Our London candidates - 30% LBGT+, 30% BAME aged 24 – 60. WEP offers bursaries & childcare vouchers to help candidates take part. Our candidates work in business, law, journalism, science, arts, are football fans, parents and human rights, mental health & discrimination specialists. One has held public office before. Want to know why politics is dominated by white middle-class graduates? Money – from standing the candidates, to getting hold of data, setting up and running a political party is prohibitively expensive and restrictive. You cannot introduce new forms of political party. To my mind it’s not just theatre that should be holding a mirror up to nature, our political entities should too.

Like other smaller parties and citizen-led initiatives taking responsibility for government from Spainto Frome, WEP has tapped into a need to make a change in the way we live. Last weekend, I attended two events focusing on mending the UK’s broken politics, hosted by Good London culminating in a participatory hustings; and How 2 Do It, at King’s College organised by Radical Think Tank. I enjoyed how good theatre participatory practice overlaps with what is emerging as good (both ethical and effective) political engagement practice. Creativity, co-operation and invention are evident in abundance. What marks WEP out is the force of our nationwide support, probably because we are not a minority interest group, women are 51% of the population.

Our values, our policies and our funds are crowd-sourced from our members and supporters. As we often discuss in theatre, this tranche of people don’t want to be passive. Reasons for joining include: “I felt invited, they’re talking about stuff that’s relevant to me, I went to one of the workshops and helped make policy, I can afford it [£4 a month], it’s a positive energy” This is immersive politics, something you can be part of, the story of which you can inform, influence and change.

As soon as WE say we’re representing a new party with non-partisan ideas and the aim of making London the UK’s most equal city for women (and therefore everyone) the conversation starts. New - in politics - is interesting and in fact it’s keeping people awake.

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