Election 2017: Meet the barrister standing for the Women’s Equality Party

Green rosetteHarini Iyengar is a barrister at 11KBW, specialising in employment, discrimination and equality, education, partnership, data protection and procurement law. She is the Women’s Equality Party’s candidate for Vauxhall in the upcoming general election. 

What’s your background?

My immigrant parents both worked as NHS doctors. As the Women’s Equality Party Parliamentary Candidate for Vauxhall, I believe it’s time to value the contributions migrants make to our community.

How did you get into law and what does your practice look like?

Coming from an immigrant family, I had no contacts in the legal profession. I was very fortunate to have an excellent careers guidance teacher at school, so I learnt how to research different training courses and professions in books, and arrange to do work experience.

I was called to the Bar in 1999, seven months pregnant. Today, I’m ranked as an expert in employment, equality and education. My specialisms also include EU, human rights and procurement law, so I’m particularly skilled to contribute to the Brexit debate in Vauxhall.

Women's Equality Party, Harini Iyengar
Harini Iyengar

How did you get involved with the Women’s Equality Party? Did you have previous political affiliations?

As a student I was politically active, debating and elected in the Oxford Union, then an Officer in the Labour Club.  In 1997, I stood for election to Oxfordshire County Council as a post-graduate student. When I became a young working single mother in 1999, I found that none of the old parties spoke to me or for me and I became disillusioned and alienated from politics for many years.

So, I’m neither a career politician nor a party apparatchik. WEP was registered as a political party in July 2015, I signed up after attending the Policy Launch in October 2015, I stood for election to the Greater London Assembly in May 2016, and now I’m proud to be a Parliamentary Candidate in our first ever general election.

How do you juggle your work as a barrister with campaigning?

Hey – I’m not performing a circus act! My life experiences have taught me to be very organised, efficient, resilient and professional. I’ve been a full-time barrister and full-time mother for 17 years. I now have three school-age children.

I’ve always done pro bono work; I was nominated for the Bar Pro Bono Award in 2013.  I’ve been a charity trustee for several years and am now a University Governor.  I’ve also sat on professional committees including COIC Disciplinary Panel, the Temple Women’s Forum and now the Retention Panel of the Bar Council’s Equality and Diversity and Social Mobility Committee. Standing for Parliament is a natural progression of the extra unpaid work which I’ve been doing for years.

Presumably many of your fellow tenants at 11KBW will have strong political views of their own… have you had any interesting debates?

Some barristers have warmly congratulated me and made generous donations to my campaign fund. I can only afford to stand because WEP is paying my extra childcare expenses, something no other political party does to support women. WE are also the only party which will introduce free universal childcare of 40 hours a week.

Other colleagues keep their own counsel and simply haven’t mentioned my candidacy.

My clerks are nearly all working parents dedicated to both Chambers and family life. They have given me huge support and encouragement as I spread the word on WEP’s policies, which require matched investment in the caring economy to investment in physical infrastructure.

Are you out knocking on doors in Vauxhall? What is the reaction that you are getting? Why should Vauxhall’s constituents vote for you over other ‘progressive’ parties? 

My campaign team volunteers and I are out canvassing on the doorsteps of Vauxhall every single day – sometimes twice a day. Voters in Vauxhall are looking for a meaningful alternative, are delighted to hear I’m standing, and want to vote for me.

Women of all ages, races, sexualities, abilities, religions and backgrounds rejoice to hear that there is now a party which understands that their life experiences and needs are not identical to those of the older, white, privileged men who currently dominate Westminster.

A lot of so-called Millennial Men are very receptive to our message. They want to be more involved in family life than their own fathers had the opportunity to be and they want more choices about how they live as men.

WE also receive strong support on the doorstep from men who answer the door holding babies, wooden spoons, screwdrivers or ladders, from older men who’ve seen their wife short-changed at work over the years and now in her pension, from BAME men who’d like to be represented by someone who looks more like them, and from LGBT+ men who appreciate my strong track record speaking out for minorities and human rights.

You’re unlikely to win the seat. So what’s the point? While women’s equality is obviously an issue worth fighting for, how does doing it as a minority party at the ballot box make a difference?

I do not share your cynicism and fatalism. When I became a single mother in the middle of pupillage, lots of people wrote me off – but look at my career now.

When WE set up the party, no one dreamed that nine months later WE would win 5.2 per cent of the vote share in the Greater London Assembly elections or would have such a huge influence through other parties stealing our nickable policies. Don’t fall into the trap of underestimating what women can achieve!

You have invited other parties to “steal your policies” – do you think any of them will?

Yes, they already have!  For example, Sadiq Khan described himself as a feminist and stole many of our policies after sharing Mayoral hustings with our Leader, Sophie Walker.

Obviously you are a single-issue party but what are your views on the justice system as it stands? What bright idea would you implement if the WEP stormed to victory and you were made Lord Chancellor/Justice Secretary?

Just as being a woman is not my whole identity as a person, WEP is not a single-issue party.

Outside our seven core objectives, WEP MPs will have a free vote on all other issues. What’s the point of getting to a 50:50 Parliament with diverse MPs and then whipping them all to say exactly the same thing in debates, as currently happens?

As a barrister, my biggest concern has been the damage which the Coalition and Conservative governments have done to Access to Justice. As we Brexit, however, my top priority will be to scrutinise the Great Repeal Bill to ensure that EU directives such as equal pay, pregnancy protection and part-time workers’ rights remain protected in UK law, so women don’t pay the price of a hard Brexit.

TV leaders’ debates: are they a good or bad idea?

The more Vauxhall voters get to see of me the better, I say. I have nothing to hide. I’m delighted to be debating publicly next week at four hustings, three in Vauxhall and the national Fawcett Society hustings.

We’re not partisan at Lawyer 2B and welcome contributions from other lawyer candidates. Get in touch with richard.simmons@thelawyer.com

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