A Change is Gonna Come? Learning from the Tories

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

Source: Opinium Research

How do parties regain power? Perhaps Ed Miliband should look to his opponents for some tips. Tim Bale’s new book on the Conservative party offers some important lessons. As one of the oldest parties around, the Conservatives , leaving aside the wilderness years between 1997 and 2005, have shown themselves ‘willing and able to do whatever it took to return to office as rapidly as possible’. The secret of the party’s success lies in its now legendary ability to change.  Are there any signs that the Labour party is now doing the same?

Bale points out that there are several ‘classic’ drivers for party change- a new leader, a heavy defeat or a shift in the dominant faction. Ed has at least two of these to start with though whether there is a fiercely group of Milibandites who’ve taken over the party must be open to question. Aside from these classic ‘forces for change’, there are some ‘hidden’ pressures such as

  • the pressure to ‘make right’ past wrongs or ‘match’ popular policy
  • the ‘domino’ effect of a particular policy leading to others
  • responding to ‘external’ events

So has Ed set the scene for change? Has he kick started the process? Ever since Tony Blair had his ‘Clause IV Moment’ the media has looked for the key moments when an opposition leader has emerged or sunk. Ian Duncan Smith’s ‘quiet man’ speech sunk him. David Cameron’s husky dogs made him. Was Ed’s ‘One nation party’ speech to conference his starting gun for change?

We can perhaps see some of Bale’s ‘hidden pressures’ at work. The speech matched policy and may lead to other commitments. On spending Ed made it clear ‘there will be many cuts that this Government made that we won’t be able to reverse even though we would like to’ something Ed Balls also emphasised. Ed’s recent moves on other policy, such as his speech on Climate change or position on the banks or Leveson or Europe, may bring a ‘domino’ effect on policy producing many unexpected ‘knock on’ commitments.

The speech also showed signs of Labour making up for past wrongs. Ed spoke of how ‘we can’t go back to Old Labour’ but that New Labour too had its faults ‘because New Labour, despite its great achievements, was too silent about the responsibilities of those at the top, and too timid about the accountability of those with power’. Labour’s adoption of spending plans may be atonement as well as opportunism. There was also a great deal of responding to events ‘no interest, from Rupert Murdoch to the banks, is too powerful to be held to account’. Incidentally, the speech stole a big chunk of political space where the left of the Conservative party used to be.

So what could we see? The pressures for change are certainly there. We may yet see a Labour party with new faces, a new way of working and a raft of new policies. Positions are still unclear and Ed’s big policy review is still in process, as Grant Schapps delights in pointing out here.

Perhaps the big unanswered question is whether the changing party can also propel the leader upwards. Ed’s own ratings remain low (see the graphic above and here). The question, as Bale points out, is how central the leader is to winning elections. Does the increased ‘personalisation’ of politics mean that any changes in the party will be undermined by Ed himself?

And of course, it all depends on how much the Tories are prepared to change too.  One thing Bale emphasises is how much governing parties’ shifts are driven by their desperation to avoid an anticipated defeat.  With an election looming, Cameron may surprise everyone by jettisoning some measures that are supposedly set in stone and running with others that right now no-one would predict.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.

Women’s Legislative Recruitment: no simple explanation, no single panacea

By Rosie Campbell & Sarah Childs

PR: neither necessary nor sufficient

It is a widely held view that the first-past-the-post electoral system disadvantages women and that electoral reform would improve the representation of women in the UK Parliament. In Westminster elections party candidates are selected constituency by constituency – too often women are selected for the party’s less winnable seats. Only on election-day does it become obvious that the House of Commons is once again over-represented by men. Proportional representation is, however, neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for improving the political representation of women. This is not to say that a more proportional system is not desirable but the surest and most immediate way to guarantee a fairer representation of women in elected bodies is to apply quota rules, irrespective of the electoral system.

Evidence from the UK and around the world clearly demonstrates that operating under a more proportional electoral system is no guarantor of women’s political representation. Whilst at first glance the Scottish Parliament appears to be an example of electoral reform working in women’s favour, when we look more closely at the figures we see that the high numbers of women returned to the Scottish parliament can be largely attributed to the Labour party’s use of twinning in its single member constituencies rather than high numbers of women in the party lists. We don’t wish to argue that electoral reform is of no benefit to women, moments of constitutional change often provide a window where women can disturb the political order and demand space in the new institutional arrangements. But the choice of PR is important. In OSCE countries with a party list system of PR there are on average 4-6% more women in lower house. List systems can make initiatives to improve the representation of women easier to implement, and harder to ignore. Certainly in a closed list system parties can ‘zip’ men and women candidates, alternating them on the party list, and therefore greatly increasing the likelihood of women getting elected and not just selected. Should a party place all of their women candidates at the bottom of the list the distribution of seat winnablity by sex of candidate would be plain for all to see.

Global Trends: the case for quotas

When it comes to the global league table of women’s representation there are some surprising countries in the top ten. In fact if you ask undergraduate students of politics to rank order countries by the percentage of women in the legislature fail they invariably fail to get the right order.

Top 10 Percentage of women in lower or single house in rank order

  1. Rwanda 56.3%
  2. Andorra 50.0%
  3. Cuba 45.2%
  4. Sweden 44.7%
  5. Seychelles 43.8%
  6. Finland 42.5%
  7. South Africa 42.3%
  8. Netherlands 40.7%
  9. Nicaragua 40.2%
  10. Iceland 39.7%


Their expectations – and no doubt others – is that established democracies will do best. In fact this is rarely the case. The UK House of Commons does particularly poorly, with just over 20% women MPs, coming in at an embarrassing 49th place. It is beaten by other European countries, including Spain, Portugal and Belgium even as it is ahead of France and the US. The scale of women’s under-representation in the UK Parliament is often met with surprise; perhaps because women MPs often wearing bright jackets are highly visible against a background of grey suits, and perhaps too because they are used strategically by party leaders – ‘doughnutting’ the Prime Minister on the Parliamentary benches, or on the campaign trail, or at press conferences.

Around the world the single most important factor related to higher levels of women’s representation is the use of quotas. About half of the top 20 OSCE countries registering sharpest growth in women’s representation have used legal quotas; of the bottom twenty none had such constitutional requirements. Sure, there has been overall improvement in women’s representation over time, but there is no simple linear trend, with stagnation in some countries and regions, for example, Scandinavia, and fall back in others, such as those countries that make up the post-soviet space, and in Scotland and Wales.  In other cases there has been substantial and steady growth (Switzerland, Spain, Austria) and in yet others sudden rises (Belgium and the  Netherlands). In all this, there is no clear unambiguous relationship between electoral system and the proportion of women in the lower house.

The way forward for the UK: time for quotas too

A change in the electoral system in the UK might well have pushed Britain up in the international ranking by a few places. But if we want to see sizeable changes then sex quotas are a better – and arguably post the AV referendum, the easier – choice. Recall that in 1997 there was a big jump in the number of women MPs:  the figure doubled overnight from 60 to 120. This had nothing to do with the electoral system per se. Instead, it was the Labour party’s use of a quota system, in the form of all-women-shortlists, that accounts for the rise, and explains too their continuing higher levels of women’s representation. In the 2011 parliament they still have more women MPs than all the other parties added together Quotas are, for sure, by no means a simple panacea, they need to be well designed and robustly implemented or some parties will find ways to circumvent them, but they provide nonetheless the most effective means to improve the political representation of women. As one of the recommendations of the 2008-10 Speaker’s Conference made clear, it is time for Parliament to consider legislative quotas for women.

Men’s voting behaviour: it’s a hunter-gatherer thing apparently!

By Dr Rosie Campbell & Dr Jason Edwards

BBC Radio Four’s Beyond Westminster recently ran a programme on ‘The Men’s Vote’. The programme asked why politicians and the media seem more interested in targeting women’s votes than men’s. Rosie Campbell, Peter Kellner and Hopi Sen debated the issue.

Peter Kellner claimed that we can look back to early humans to help explain differences in men and women’s political attitudes and behaviour. He said “I think there is, probably, still in the different gender DNAs something that goes back to the early human, men being hunter/gatherers and the women being the home-makers” and that “hunter/gatherers are risk takers – have to be – home-makers are risk avoiders – have to be”. Peter viewed these pre-historic differences in gender roles as pivotal to understanding how men and women relate to politics today. Hopi Sen and Rosie Campbell were quick to disagree.

So what’s wrong with using hunter-gatherers to explain gender differences in voting behaviour in modern Britain?

The idea that there are ‘gender DNAs’ is, to say the least, strange. There is no such thing as male or female DNA. The DNA of all human beings is virtually identical. The only difference between men and women in the organisation of DNA within the cell is that women possess a pair of X chromosomes whereas men possess only one X chromosome in addition to a Y chromosome. That chromosomal variation is what explains sexual dimorphism in the human species – the different sexual organs of men and women and a different balance of hormones associated with their roles in sexual reproduction. So presumably, what Kellner means is that there is a biological basis (genetic, chromosomal, hormonal) to the supposedly contrasting social behaviour of men and women and that this ‘natural’ behaviour is expressed in their ‘natural’ condition, i.e. the environment in which early humans (‘hunter-gatherers’) found themselves in the Pleistocene epoch.

Oddly, Kellner claims that men in this environment are the hunter-gatherers wheareas women are home-makers. But most paleo-anthropologists agree that women did (and do) the majority of gathering in hunter-gatherer societies, and they also argue that there was (and remains) no absolute sexual division of labour: in most bands, men also gather and women also hunt. Of course, hunter-gatherer bands are also, for the most part, nomadic, so it’s a bit weird to say that women were ‘homemakers’ in societies that don’t have ‘homes’, at least as fixed abodes in which children are nurtured.

Another faulty assumption that Kellner makes is that hunting is a risky, and economically key, activity only suited to men who are (hormonally) equipped to be risk-takers. Depending on the environment, hunting can be very low-risk and economically marginal. In times of abundance, the Indians of the Pacific North-West could stand at the side of the river and catch leaping salmon in their arms. At the historic peak of the buffalo hunt in the 19th century, the Plains Indians, on horseback and armed with rifles, would kill so many bison that they took the choice parts – the pelt for clothing, the eyes and liver as delicacies – and left the carcasses to rot in the sun.

The point is that Kellner repeats an old chestnut: in their ‘natural’ condition, the social roles of men and women are distinct and determined by biology. This is to vastly underestimate the complexity and diversity of ‘primitive’ societies. In fact, the social roles of men and women in traditional ‘hunter-gatherer’ societies are as much determined by the material environment, by their religious and magical practices, by the specific forms of social and economic relations they possess, as they are by biology. That, of course, does not amount to saying that biology is unimportant, but it has always been mediated by the social, economic and cultural structures of human societies which are, to an important extent, autonomous of biological determination.

The mistake Kellner makes with respect to biology and gender is compounded by the evidence from contemporary politics. First there’s more similarity than difference in men and women’s political preferences in contemporary Britain. In the post WW2 period women were more likely to support the Conservative party than men, but this tendency has gradually declined, so that at most elections women are only significantly more Conservative in the very oldest generations, and even then the percentage point differences are usually only in single figures.

The British gender gap 1964- 2010 (Adapted from Norris 1999)

(The gender gap is calculated as the difference between the Con-Lab lead for women and men. Gallup polls 1945-59; BES 1964-2010)

Second, where there are differences in attitudes they seem to shift across the life cycle. Women tend to be more concerned about education and healthcare than men, but this isn’t stable across age groups; younger women are usually more concerned about education and older women more concerned about healthcare.

Third, where there are gender gaps in political attitudes the percentage point differences are not startling. According to the 2010 British Election Study post-election face-to-face survey twice as many women as men said that the NHS was the most important issue facing Britain, but only 2.6% of women and 1.2% of men selected the NHS as the most important issue. The issue that most voters selected as most important was, not surprisingly, the economy (42% of men and 34.1% of women selected the state of the economy); an eight percentage point difference is worthy of note but does not seem to indicate a seismic difference in the way men and women prioritise political issues. Small gender variations in political attitudes, where women are slightly more concerned about social services and men worry more about the economy and taxation, are regularly evident in Western democracies, but they rarely reach double digit percentage points. It seems most likely that these small distinctions reflect the vestiges of traditional gender roles, where women have been more associated with the family and caring responsibilities and men seen as providers. But crucially, as women have moved into employment and higher education differences in political attitudes and behaviour between men and women have declined.

These trends undermine Kellner’s hunter-gatherer thesis. If gender differences in political attitudes are hard-wired into our brains as part of an evolutionary process that started with the earliest humans, surely we would expect to see large and predictable differences between men and women that are relatively stable over time and place?

This debate is illustrative of the ongoing argument in the social sciences, and beyond, about gender difference. It’s the age old nature/nurture debate that tore second wave feminism apart- when some radical feminists claimed that men were essentially aggressive and couldn’t be reformed and broke off from liberal feminists- many of whom shared their beds and their lives with men who they believed to be pretty ok.

So why are so many political commentators tempted to take us back to prehistory? Perhaps it’s all in the DNA . . .