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.

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 . . .