On a cold and wet November evening some 40 women gathered to discuss the forthcoming UK general election. The panel of speakers – hosted by the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS)’ Gender Research Centre as part of the 2014 ESRC ‘Thinking Futures’ festival of social science, undertook a gendered reading of the forthcoming election.
Gender and voting behaviour
The sociologist Paula Surridge offered new analysis of the British Panel study (BES) data, a panel study of the British population with around 30,000 respondents to each wave. She found:
- a gender gap in identification of the ‘most important political issue’, with
- women more concerned about immigration than men, and
- men more concerned about the economy.
Perhaps surprisingly for the audience, education and health – often cited as issues women are more concerned about – did not feature highly when the question looked at the single most important issue.
Paula stressed the importance of intra-sex differences:
- amongst white non-British women, there was greater concern with the economy
- unemployment was more important for Asian women and black men
- and for women with no educational qualifications, over 40% mentioned immigration.
When asked which party is best placed to address the political issue they thought was the most important, Paula found that large numbers of women and men don’t know which party is best; that said, women were more likely to be in the ‘don’t know’ category or said that ‘no party is the best placed’. The implications of this? Two in five women are open to being persuaded by the political parties. And with women more likely than men to be ‘undecided’ (one in five) many women’s votes are out there to be won.
Amongst those who have decided that they will vote, Paula found that there is a pro-Labour gender gap, with women more likely to vote for Labour than Conservative. Men had similar numbers intending to vote for the two main parties. Other intra-sex differences were also important. For example, highly educated women were much more likely to vote for Labour than their equivalently positioned men.
Women’s presence in the House of Commons
Here, Sarah Childs acknowledged that Bristol has a very good tradition of returning women to Parliament: three out of four of its current MPs are women. This history very much reflects the use by the Labour Party of a party sex quota: all women shortlists. In 2015 there is a good chance that Bristol will maintain this record, as Labour has again used shortlists. Nationally, the picture is not so healthy; the failure of the other two main parties to accept the evidence and logic of sex quotas means it is much harder for women to be selected especially in the seats where a party is most likely to win. Using data produced by Dr. Rosie Campbell and Dr. Jennifer Hudson, Sarah showed that in the vacant party-held seats Labour has selected more than 81% women; the Liberal Democrats 57%; and the Conservatives only 35%. There are, as a consequence of the percentage of women selected by the parties in their winnable seats, very real concerns that whilst the Labour Party might have a parliamentary party that is 40% female after the general election, the numbers of Conservative and Liberal Democrat women MPs risk being fewer. Accordingly, Sarah reminded the audience that an ‘onwards and upward trajectory’ of women’s representation cannot be taken for granted.
Women’s issues: the case of welfare reform
Julie MacLeavy discussed her research on welfare reform since 2010 and
its impact on women. Whilst she drew attention to the legacy of New Labour, she argued that in many ways Coalition reforms had challenged women’s financial security. Julie noted the Government’s differential approaches to poorer and middle income women: stricter conditions were put upon low income women with the expectation that they would be in paid employment rather than caring for their children. She also drew attention to the welfare to work programmes that downplayed structural factors causing poverty and social exclusion. For low income women the difficulties of combining work with care meant that many were retreating from the workplace. For middle class women, cuts in public sector jobs had left the pool of higher quality jobs – that offer flexibility – much reduced, meaning women were less able to secure jobs commensurate with their abilities and experience – leading to underemployment. And what was missing in all this? Debate around the sexual division of labour within the household.
Young women’s interests
Alice Phillips, Equality, Liberation and Access Officer at the University of Bristol Students’ Union, and 2014 Politics graduate, brought young women’s political interests to the discussion. She drew attention to the disillusionment of many young women with formal politics whilst emphasising their manifest interest in grassroots politics. Bristol women students are highly concerned about rape culture and the need for compulsory sex education. They were much more concerned with rape culture than women’s under representation in formal politics. The NUS Hidden Marks Report (2010) found that one in seven women had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time at university. Students feel that the wider rape culture could only be tackled via the compulsory teaching of sex education – these two issues were, then, for women students, intimately linked. Alice noted recent efforts to bring consideration of consent to students at the University and drew attention to the ‘Reclaim the Night’ march she has been involved in.
The Bristol perspective
The final contribution came from longstanding activist Mary Southcott, who reflected on the masculinised nature of parliamentary politics: the political advisers who surround our MPs, were in her view, as ‘male as ever’, as judged by the tearooms. And these ‘are the MPs of the future’.
The issue of the constitutional settlement was one Bristol women should be debating: how to ensure that whatever devolution is coming would be ‘women friendly’, not just in terms of women’s participation but also in terms of the issues politics needs to address. In Mary’s view, this means including the unpaid care that women provide in the social care and health debate. We should be aiming to create a caring society. Finally she reminded the audience that women in politics were ‘good representatives’ only when they were in touch with other women, when they listened and learned from other women and when they were able to influence their party. Bristol, Mary decried, was a ‘feminist city’. And it was important for women to reflect on how to make all Bristol’s women representatives work for women.
You can follow Professor Childs on twitter: @profsarahchilds