Following the pink battle bus: where are the women voters in 2015?

By Dr Rosie Campbell, Reader in Politics, Department of Politics, Birkbeck

male-and-female-relationship-sign 250 by 250On 11th February Harriet Harman launched the Labour party’s magenta battle bus intended to reach out to women voters. The bus generated a fair amount of publicity and was explained on the basis that women have been less likely to vote in previous elections.

Women are less interested in formal politics than men, but there is little convincing evidence that significantly fewer women than men have voted in recent British General Elections. Take the last general election. The 2010 British Election Study post-election face-to-face survey shows that 77% of men and 76% of women said that they had voted, a gap between men and women of just 1% that is not statistically significant. As well as self-reported turnout the survey includes a validated vote variable (the survey team used electoral registers to establish whether respondents voted in the election). Using these figures, 57% of men and 56% of women in the survey were found to have voted in the election, again producing a gap of just 1% between men and women, and a gap which is again not statistically significant. In my view it is difficult to use this miniscule difference between men and women in the survey to claim that there were a disproportionate number of missing women voters in 2010.

So why else might women voters be receiving so much attention? First, women are often over represented in the ‘don’t know’ category in political survey questions (as reflected in the figure below). But given the lack of a significant turnout gap between men and women it is likely that a sizeable proportion of the women represented in the ‘Don’t Know’ category will vote for a party’s candidate on May the 7th. Women are also somewhat less likely to be strong partisans than men, and again, as a result there are slightly more women among the undecided voters who are the target of the parties’ activities during the campaign.

Vote intention by sex, 2015 BES online panel wave three

Rosie Table 1

Second, there are some differences in men and women’s political attitudes. Women are on average a little more hostile to cuts in public spending than men, with 5% more women than men judging that cuts to public spending have gone too far and 10% more women than men believing that cuts to the NHS budget have gone too far. Given attitudes to austerity are likely to be a crucial decider in this election these small gender differences between men and women may have some impact on the result.

However, as things stand there are only relatively minor differences between men and women’s vote intention evident in the BES 2015 wave three. After removing non-voters and the ‘don’t knows’ 31% of men and 30% of women intended to vote Conservative, 33% of men and 36% of women intended to vote Labour (the largest gap between men and women in vote intention). Thus it would seem from this data that Labour have a marginal lead among women, but the differences are small indeed and should not be overstated.

This blog was originally posted on the British Election Study website.

‘More complaints please!’: a public services problem

By Dr Ruth Carlyle, Macmillan Cancer Support and Associate Research Fellow, Birkbeck

A very British plea emerged from the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee in April 2014: ‘More complaints please!’. In the case of British public services, particularly the National Health Service, the Select Committee noted a ‘toxic cocktail’ of reluctance to complain and unwillingness to learn from such complaints as are made (House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 2014: p.3)

The Public Administration Select Committee inquiry was triggered by the events at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. The Francis inquiry identified that the problems at the Stafford hospital should have been apparent earlier, through complaints made by patients and their families. The Select Committee noted that Mid Staffordshire was not alone in its failure to learn from complaints, as a Which? survey of 94 NHS trusts found that only 20 percent reviewed learning from complaints (2014: p. 16). Unless people complain and managers learn from the complaints, services in a near-monopoly are unlikely to improve.

A similarly toxic problem with the Nigerian railways inspired Hirschman’s 1970 monograph on resolving ‘repairable lapses’ in firms, organisations and states. Hirschman identified that in an economic model managers may learn about problems through ‘exit’ from a product or service, but that in political terms consumers may also ‘voice’ concerns (Hirschman, 1970: p. 3). He indicated that customer ‘loyalty’ also needs to be taken into account: in a market, it may discourage early exit by customers who could provide useful feedback; but it might also deter feedback where customers do not have a realistic exit option (1970: p. 55). In the Nigerian railways, Hirschman identified that exit was not an issue for managers, as in a state-supported industry they were not unduly concerned by the loss of customers, and that voice did not operate as the most roused customers were those who transferred their custom to the road network (1970: p. 45).

The lack of a true exit option for users of NHS services creates different pressures from those in the Nigerian railways. For most patients within the NHS, private healthcare is not an alternative and so a choice to ‘exit’ is a choice not to be treated.  In these circumstances, voicing concerns is the only option to improve services.

The principal recommendations within the Select Committee report relate to improving how complaints will be managed, rather than increasing the number of complaints:

  • A single Minister responsible for complaints across public services
  • Changing professional attitudes to increase the value placed on complaints
  • Sharing learning from high-performing organisations
  • Cabinet Office audits of complaints
  • Annual reports from government departments to include management of complaints.

The title of the report, ‘More complaints please!’, points to the more complex issue of how to enable members of the public to complain. A Which? survey cited by the Select Committee found that just 65% of those with a cause to complain had made a complaint about the NHS; whereas 90% with those for cause to complain had done so in relation to high street retailers. The Select Committee propose that patients and families need to be supported to make complaints about the NHS.

Various attempts have been made to increase the public voice within the NHS, including lay governors in NHS Foundation Trusts, professionally-led engagement and state-funded voluntary schemes. The Select Committee refers to Community Health Councils, a form of state-funded public involvement institution, as having provided support in the past. Local Healthwatch groups, the current successors to Community Health Councils, were granted the right to support complainants as part of the Government’s response to events at Mid Staffordshire (Secretary of State for Health, 2013).

Given the complex loyalty issues for users of NHS services, it is likely to take more than independent support to increase the number of complaints made in the NHS.  Hirschman’s 1970 monograph continues to remain relevant, with its warning that having ‘locked in’ customers does not of itself ensure that concerns will be voiced (1970: p. 55).


Hirschman, A.O., 1970. Exit, voice, and loyalty: responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee, 2014. More complaints please! Twelfth report of session 2013-14: report together with formal minutes relating to the report. London: The Stationery Office.

Secretary of State for Health, 2013. Hard truths: the journey to putting patients first; volume one of the Government response to the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry. London: The Stationery Office.

Reflections on Thatcher

By Dr Benjamin Worthy

The discussion following the death of Margaret Thatcher has quickly moved from a fragile peace to a divisive debate (see these ambiguous local press headlines). I don’t remember much about Thatcherism but I have vague memories, as Russell Brand wonderfully put it, of a woman on the TV telling people off and constantly saying no.

Having taught British politics I find it fascinating to see the differences between myth and reality in leaders from across time. Thatcher appears to be one leader who will be as wrapped in myth and controversy as Churchill. As Richard Vinen points out his great book on Thatcher, both left and right had an interest in creating a straw Thatcher, a repository of virtue or evil. Added to this, academics, supporters and others, including Thatcher herself, have piled on further layers of mystique. Her comments about there being ‘no such thing as society’, for example, are quoted out of context while her comments about immigration in 1978 are often forgotten.

Take Thatcher’s background as the famous ‘grocer’s daughter’. As Simon Jenkin’s (see a good article here) and biographer John Campbell argue in their works on Thatcher, Alderman Roberts was an important local politician – but Grantham gave her a ‘hinterland’ and an ‘outsider’ story to tell. More importantly the ‘outsider’ Thatcher developed her real contacts at that most establishment of places Oxford, where she gained the friendships that eventually found her a seat. An outsider perhaps but with at least one foot firmly in the establishment.

More interesting is Thatcher as a politician. Her portrait as an ideology driven ‘wrecker’ needs to be qualified. Vinen is not certain she ever read any of the ‘classic’ texts that were supposed to have inspired Thatcherism or that she regarded them as anything more than ‘polish’ (though this is not to underestimate her formidable intellect). Nor was she the first to privatise parts of government or acknowledge the financial arrangements were unsuitable-the prize for both of these goes to her ‘socialist’ predecessor. Her golden rule of politics was said to have been ‘always leave yourself a way out’ – not a very Thatcher thing to say.

As a politician Thatcher is seen as a model conviction politician. But, as John Major and Jon Snow both tried to point out, the same Thatcher signed the Single European Act of 1986 and agreed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Her privatisation began slowly and she backed away from reforming the NHS or privatising the Post Office. Only when she truly became an ideologue did she lose power.

Vinen highlights her famous 1988 Bruges Speech, seen now as the founding moment of the UK Eurosceptic movement in Britain, as one of the most misunderstood parts of her career. As a statement of Euroscepticism it leaves a lot to be desired. Parts of the speech are very pro-European, peppered with phrases such as ‘And let me be quite clear…Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community’-she even begins the speech with a gentle joke about her supposed ‘anti-European’ views.

Even Thatcher’s ‘iron resolution’ over the Falklands war may not be all that it seemed-these papers from the National Archives reveal Thatcher open to the idea of a negotiated settlement (borrowing from Churchill again who said ‘jaw jaw is always better than war’).

The most confusing aspect is her legacy, which can be less a verdict and more an on-going debate. Thatcherism shaped the views of what the state, the economy and society should do. In 2004 this all seemed to have been settled. Post 2007 light touch approaches to banking and food safety seem more questionable.

Thatcher herself spoke of her key achievements as being variously the creation of Tony Blair or the changing of ‘values’ and ‘common sense’. None of these take us very far in understanding what it was Thatcherism did. The difficulty is that debate is on two levels. One level we can (and are) discussing economic and social changes Thatcherism created. On this one I broadly agree with Ken Livingstone’s assessment.

But on another level, the argument is about something harder to define-this may be what Thatcher meant about ‘values’. Both left and right believe Thatcher did something less tangible. To the right Thatcher made Britain ‘great’ again as Cameron said, saving us from a terminal sort of ‘spiritual’ as well as economic decline-though some interesting and much debated research points to 1976, that year of terrible economic crisis, as being the time when the UK was ‘happiest’. To the left Thatcher ‘broke’ something about Britain and what Alexei Sayle called her ‘prejudice wrapped up as policy’ destroyed something worth keeping- a sense of community as difficult to measure as happiness.

The events of the last few days have showed that she has one unarguable legacy. Her idol Winton Churchill spent much of his life a divisive and contrary figure but, a year shy of his 70 birthday, transformed into a figure of national unity and ‘the saviour of his country’ (as a very left wing historian said). By contrast Thatcher, who claimed quoting St Augustine she sought unity, has left division and conflict.

Dr Benjamin Worthy is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck.

Mid Staffs: a failure of ‘fire alarms’?

By Dr Ruth Carlyle

The public inquiry into care at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust raises questions about the professional culture and the impact of placing targets over patient care. Considered from a political perspective, however, it also reflects a failure of political oversight.

Senior politicians responsible for public services have choices over the forms of oversight they use. McCubbins and Schwartz suggest that politicians may choose professional ‘police-patrol oversight’, or they may prefer less formal engagement with citizens and user groups to provide ‘fire-alarm oversight’ (1984: 167). In order to encourage ‘fire alarms’, politicians create mechanisms that allow interested citizens and voluntary groups to access information and to refer problems before they become disasters. In the NHS, I suggest that politicians have created a series of statutory public involvement institutions to act as ‘fire alarms’: Community Health Councils; Patient and Public Involvement Forums (PPI Forums); Local Involvement Networks; and, from 2013, local Healthwatch. Each of these institutions was made up of volunteers, supported by paid staff, with statutory rights to scrutinise services and to refer problems. Part of the story of Mid Staffs is the failure of the statutory public involvement institutions to raise alarms.

During the period covered by the Mid Staffs public inquiry first PPI Forums (2003-2008) and then Local Involvement Networks (2008-2013) were in place. The PPI Forum for the Stafford Hospital was criticised in the initial investigation by the Healthcare Commission for being too close to the hospital board to challenge the poor quality of patient care. Giving evidence to the public inquiry, the Secretary of State for that period indicated that he would have expected the PPI Forum to raise the alarm if there were problems with standards at Mid Staffs:

‘I would particularly have expected any concerns or issues in relation to Mid Staffordshire to have been highlighted by the local public involvement structure – the PPIF [PPI Forum] at that time – but to my knowledge nothing came through this channel either.’ Andy Burnham

The successors to PPI Forums, Local Involvement Networks, had a looser structure than their predecessors, working with local groups and individuals, rather than having a membership system. Staffordshire Local Involvement Network is criticised in the public inquiry for focussing on internal ‘squabbling’ during ‘the worst crisis any district hospital in the NHS can ever have known’.

At the opening of Chapter Six of the public inquiry report, Robert Francis states of statutory public involvement institutions that:

‘It might have been expected that concerns about the standards of service would have first become apparent through these channels. Such representatives and their organisations were intended to be accessible to patients and the general public and to have the means to identify concerns and communicate to those responsible for the management, oversight and regulation of providers. In practice, alarm bells were not rung by this route, or at least not sufficiently loudly to provoke any effective reaction.’

This comment suggests that Robert Francis expected that the statutory public involvement forums should have acted as ‘fire alarms’. In practice, it was not the state-funded public involvement bodies that raised the alarm, but a group of local people who established an independent campaign, Cure the NHS. In Stafford, local people were prepared to raise the alarm when the statutory public involvement institutions did not do so. The Mid Staffs story still reflects, however, the expectation that statutory public involvement institutions should have acted as ‘fire alarms’.

Whilst this is just one dimension to the Mid Staffs story, the failure of statutory public involvement institutions to raise the alarm may influence senior politicians’ choice of oversight mechanism in the future.


McCUBBINS, M.D., and SCHWARTZ, T., 1984. Congressional oversight overlooked: police patrols versus fire alarms. American Journal of Political Science, 28 (1), pp.165-179.

Dr Ruth Carlyle completed her PhD Sheepdog or watchdog? The role of statutory public involvement institutions in political management of the NHS, 1974-2010 at Birkbeck in 2012.  She works at Macmillan Cancer Support, currently as Head of Information, Financial and Work Support.

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 . . .