LONDON — It may seem an inopportune time to start a new party, given Britain’s crowded political scene, but Sandi Toksvig says she is tired of waiting.
Waiting for what? For women to be treated the same as men, to have the same opportunities, the same representation in the top ranks of business and government and the same salaries, and for Britain’s major political parties to take the issues seriously.
“We have to stop being told to wait for equality,” Ms. Toksvig, 57, a British-Danish writer and comedian, said in an interview. “I’m done waiting.”
Many others are apparently tired of waiting, too. Since Ms. Toksvig and two journalists — Sophie Walker, 44, and Catherine Mayer, 54 — officially introduced the Women’s Equality Party, known here as WE, last month it has set up more than 65 branches and says it has drawn over 45,000 members and supporters.
“It’s incredible the wave of enthusiasm we’re currently riding on,” said Ms. Toksvig, who will soon present a popular television quiz show called QI and plans a comedy tour next year to raise money for the new party.
The question for WE’s founders is whether what amounts to a single-issue party will advance the cause of women’s equality or risk weakening it — if the party further fractures voters, particularly on the left — or if it founders on the steep obstacles that new parties face in Britain.
Much like most of the American voting system, Britain’s first-past-the-post process awards electoral districts to candidates who receive the highest number of votes rather than requiring more than 50 percent, encouraging two-party dominance and undermining small parties.
It is a system that “creates an effective massive hurdle for new parties,” said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Candidates usually must win around 40 percent of the vote in a constituency to claim a seat in Parliament, a level of support few small parties can command, he said.
The founders of WE are nonetheless hoping that their party will bring women’s issues to the front of the political conversation in Britain.
Elsewhere in Europe, women’s parties are taking hold. Last year, Soraya Post, of the Swedish Feminist Initiative party, became the first person elected to the European Parliament on a feminist ticket. In April, Norway founded its own version. And the Swedish party is now talking to feminists in Finland and Denmark about starting like-minded parties there, Ms. Post says.
Generally, the Nordic countries have some of the highest rates of gender equality in the world. In Britain, however, women lag far behind men in a variety of areas, from public offices to corporate boardrooms.
Jonathan Sumption, a senior British judge, recently told The London Evening Standard that gender equality in senior judicial roles should not be rushed, warning that it could have “appalling consequences for justice” by sidelining qualified men.
Only 25 percent of English and Welsh judges, 29 percent of British members of Parliament, and about 25 percent of FTSE 100 board directors are women.
Despite the 1970 Equal Pay Act, British women still earn almost 20 percent less than their male colleagues. The British gender pay gap of 17.5 percent is higher than the average in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and is only marginally better than the gap of 17.9 percent in the United States.
For the founders of WE, that record demonstrates a lack of passion and priority given to women’s issues by Britain’s mainstream political parties. “Not one of them has solved their own gender equality problems, so how can they solve society’s?” said Ms. Mayer, one of WE’s founders, who writes for Time magazine.
Sensing the challenge, the mainstream parties have been quick to defend their records. Kate Green, Labour’s shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, said in an email that it was the Labour Party that extended maternity leave to a full year and that introduced the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equality Act.
In July, Prime Minister David Cameron, of the Conservative Party, announced that he would introduce rules by the middle of next year to make companies with more than 250 employees publish the differences between the average pay of their male workers and that of their female employees.
For WE, those steps have not been enough. Its goals include having women make up 66 percent of the candidates to replace retiring members of Parliament and 75 percent of new peers appointed to the House of Lords. The high percentages are needed, they say, to quickly correct the lopsided representation of men.
Ms. Mayer said she never seriously considered joining one of Britain’s mainstream parties and lobbying for women’s equality from within, because “the one way you can very quickly change the minds of mainstream parties is threatening them at the ballot box.”
In a separate interview, Ms. Walker agreed. “When there’s a political risk for mainstream parties,” they begin to listen and change policies, she said. “We’ve seen this happen with UKIP, the Green Party and the Scottish National Party.”
Though she disagrees with the policies of the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, Ms. Toksvig says it is the “template.” While the party won only one seat in the May general election, she said, “they managed to put a European referendum on the table.”
Others are skeptical. Tim Bale, a professor of political science at Queen Mary University of London, doubts that the Women’s Equality Party will command the same level of support.
UKIP’s concerns about multiculturalism, immigration and the European Union “are probably more widely shared” than those advocated by the Women’s Equality Party, Professor Bale said in a telephone interview. Rightly or wrongly, he said, British voters see other issues as more important than gender equality.
Steven Fielding, a professor of political scientist at the University of Nottingham, said the party’s strategy was fundamentally flawed and may even be counterproductive.
“By linking their influence to the number of votes they get, they’ve shot themselves in the foot,” Professor Fielding said, “because I don’t think they’re going to get many votes, in any kind of election.”
A poor performance at the polls, he added, might convince mainstream parties that women’s equality is not that important after all. “It doesn’t strike me as being seriously well thought out,” he said.
But the women behind the party remain optimistic, saying they already sense an impact on Britain’s political discourse. “All the other parties are talking about equality for women,” Ms. Walker said.
She expects her party’s candidates to win seats in local elections next spring and make “a big splash.”
If all goes well, the party has one ambition that others do not share: to put itself out of business. “In 10 years’ time, I hope we don’t exist,” Ms. Toksvig said.