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.

Valuing the work of women MPs

By Emma Crewe

Originally published on the PSA Political Insight blog.

Parliament Week was about women MPs this year. It is encouraging that Parliament is putting the spotlight on our women politicians but depressing that they need it. Since October 2011 I have been researching MPs’ multiple roles and how they are changing. All Westminster MPs face increasing demands in parliament, government, constituencies, civil society, and 24-hour media and internet, and not enough time to respond – new MPs reported doing a 70 hour week on average. When parliament sits, out-of-London MPs usually split their time: Monday to Thursday in Westminster and Friday and Saturday in the constituency, with Sunday off for some lucky ones. According to one it feels like Genghis Khan’s famous torture, four horses being attached to your limbs and told to pull.

There are additional pressures if you belong to a group of people who face inequality in society – women, ethnic minorities, elderly, disabled, LGBT. They will expect you to take special action on their behalf. As a black woman MP you not only have constituents looking to you as their representative, but you may also have both women and black people across the UK expecting you to champion their common cause with you. All will have different ideas about what is needed.

And you may face discrimination in our political system as a member of one or more of these groups. Women MPs in all political parties told me that when they are outnumbered in a meeting, which is the norm in Westminster, women struggle to be heard. A woman can make a point that is ignored but when repeated by a man – and especially a senior male politician – gets the response, “that is brilliant!” Equally, the media tend to report more favourably on men than women MPs. Lobby journalists, who are also over-represented by men, tend to get chummier with male MPs. Other journalists often report on women MP’s appearance, but men’s achievements and abilities. The misogyny and homophobia voiced by online and twitter trolls is unspeakable.

Women and men MPs report different experiences of discrimination – their party, position in the party and aspirations will all make a difference. For example, Labour men have complained to me about quotas and Conservative men that women have better promotional prospects than they do (although the numbers belie this). I have dwelt on gender, but equally observations could be made about other inequalities and assumptions. Younger and black MPs get their passes checked by security more often than older white MPs. Several women told me that it is hard to be taken seriously if you are a young woman; youth is associated with naivety. Older women struggle to get promoted if they have arrived in parliament late. If you are wheelchair-bound, a shocking proportion of strangers will talk to the person with you rather than address you directly and this happens to disabled MPs as much as anyone else. So assumptions about competence based on gender intersect with others based on age, race and disability.

MPs with dependents have a harder time than they used to especially if their constituency is outside London and they have no other source of income. The sitting hours of the Chamber have shortened, but if you include all their workplaces then the hours for MPs have got far longer in the last few decades. Running two homes – one in London and one in the constituency – and lower expenses for family travel and accommodation make it almost impossible to be both an MP and a conscientious parent.

Women MPs develop strategies to deal with these pressures. One of the most effective goes to the heart of political work: building alliances. Politicians need to win support, and it is not surprising that women MPs do this brilliantly. The relationship-building that is least visible takes place in the constituency. Most backbench MPs I interviewed put significant time into constituency work, especially surgeries, which are sometimes rudely dismissed by pundits as glorified social work; but these should not be ranked lower than policy work for three reasons. First, a high proportion of cases MPs deal with in surgeries are urgent. Of the thirty-two cases I listened to, fourteen were extremely serious: the person – or their relative – was destitute or about to lose their income, house, sanity or right to stay in the UK. Secondly, I found that MPs were making a difference: sometimes constituents felt that for the first time someone important was taking notice and treating them with respect. Often MPs speed something up or even transform a person’s life by ensuring their rightful access to housing or compensation, and so on. Where possible MPs worked in conjunction with local councillors. Thirdly, MPs develop an in-depth knowledge of the people, resources and latest changes affecting constituents and this, as well as seeing the impact of policy and law on people’s everyday lives, informs their work on select committees, in opposition and in government. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe write in their latest book, “the Blunders of our Governments”, that there is a disconnect between the lives of policy-makers and those they rule. Constituency surgeries are perhaps the most important way to create a human bridge between representative and represented that leaves both better informed. It brings MPs down to earth.

Constituency work has value and women not only do it willingly but with consummate skill. They use the empathy and listening skills that some psychologists suggest women tend to develop more fully than men. All the MPs I could find who rarely or never attend surgeries seemed to be male. For those few, their ambition was to get onto the frontbenches; constituency surgeries were a distraction. These MPs delegate all (rather than just most) casework to their staff. These caseworkers tend to be female, while policy advisers are more evenly split. So it is particularly fitting that backbench MP Paul Flynn in his book “How to Be an MP” writes of the relationship between MP and constituent,

The MP should be the living embodiment of the constituency, tirelessly promoting and defending the territory with the ferocity of a mother protecting her offspring.

I’m not arguing that women should spend less time in Westminster. And I don’t want to give the impression that men were necessarily bad at constituency work – one of the most skilled surgery MPs I observed was a man and the vast majority of all backbenchers take it seriously, but I think there is enough evidence to suggest that women excel at the less antagonistic side of politician’s work. There is nothing inevitable about women having greater emotional intelligence, but women become socially skilled in ways that are more useful in politics than many realise.

The denigration of MPs’ constituency work is as shortsighted as indifference to the care of their children. One measure to enable all MPs to accomplish their work, and encourage those with dependents to stand and stay in parliament, would be to improve expenses for those that depend on them. As 2015 looms, this is the moment to send a positive message to MPs that we value their work. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority are currently consulting about MPs’ expenses so an opportunity presents itself. After all, even if politicians are loathed as a group, polls show we mostly love our local MP.

Emma Crewe is a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London. She is currently researching the work of MPs in the House of Commons, a project funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. Further details can be found on her website.

Cameron’s (and politics’) ‘woman problem’ is not something to be ‘managed’ but to be solved

Rosie CampbellSarah Childs and Elizabeth Evans argue that political parties should get serious about solving the problem of under-representation of women in political positions of power. Rather then simply ‘shuffling the pack’, the government should actively aim for gender parity in cabinet.

A BBC reporter said during the day of the reshuffle that Cameron had ‘managed’ his woman problem. And in one sense he did. Having Warsi ‘attend’ Cabinet will likely be regarded by both critics of women and optimists as proof that the status quo has been preserved. And we fully expect that the percentage of women in the junior ranks to increase as the reshuffle is completed – how could it not, given that this House has 49 Conservative women MPs on the backbenches (though only seven LibDems)?

But Cameron’s (and politics’) ‘woman problem’ is not something to be ‘managed’ but to be solved. And it is not just about the numbers of women in the Cabinet; it is about women in Parliament, women voters, and gender equality (See Childs & Webb’s Sex, Gender and the Conservative Party).

Cameron made tackling the “scandalous” under-representation of women one of his leadership promises, and declared that he wanted a third of ministerial appointments to be female. To achieve this requires radical intervention by the Prime Minister – leading his party.

We are told that no Conservative 2010 intake MPs have been appointed to Cabinet; and that, if, anything women are over-represented relative to their presence in the pre-2010 parliamentary Conservative party; apparently we – and the women politicians – must therefore bide our time…

We disagree:

If a parliamentary party is too small a supply pool for Cabinet and Government (and we take issue with this in any case, especially when women in the Lords are taken into account) then make it bigger, and do so now. The Tories should reconsider All Women Shortlists (AWS), or at least re-establish the ‘A’ list with selection from it required. This would deliver women in 50 per cent of its vacant/winnable seats at the 2015 election (See article by Campbell and Childs). And why not appoint to the Lords women who can go straight into government?

Why must women’s presence in the Cabinet only be proportionate to their presence in the Parliamentary party? Cameron and other leading Tories admit that the playing field isn’t level – that women’s merit has too often been overlooked. If women MPs have to be ‘better’ than the ‘best man’ for the job, then their swift appointment into government is meritocratic (See Murray).

And don’t we need to raise questions about ‘parliamentary experience’? Why does it appear to equal longevity? Pre-parliamentary experience should count for those who don’t enter by the professional politician route. If ‘they are good enough then they are old enough’, as the football fans amongst you will appreciate.

Like Zapatero in Spain, Cameron could have sent a signal about his commitment to equality and appointed a parity Cabinet. Of course he has to manage coalition politics but it would have taken just 10 or so current Conservative and Liberal Democrat women parliamentarians.

Cameron has four women already: May, Greening, Villiers and Miller. We could add back in Warsi. Why not appoint from amongst: Harriet Baldwin, Jane Ellison, Helen Grant, Andrea Leadsom, Margot James, Esther McVey, Nicky Morgan, Claire Perry, Amber Rudd, Anna Soubry, and Liz Truss. Or from the LibDems: Jo Swinson, and she’s a 2005 intake. If for some reason none of these suit, Cameron could look to the Lords: Baronesses Browning, Jenkin, Morris, Wheatcroft, or on the LibDem benches, Baroness Kramer and Doocey.

For the sake of justice the presence of women’s bodies matter but they are not all that matter. The issues that matter to women need to be fairly represented too. So it matters not just how many women, but which women with what ideas, and what kind of portfolios they get, and how much influence they have (issues we lack the space to discuss here – See Annesley and Gains forthcoming in Political Quarterly). The reshuffle has already raised the following concern: with Theresa May no longer Women’s Minister, replaced by Maria Miller, the blogosphere has asked questions of the latter’s equality credentials in respect of abortion, gay rights and disabilities. Therefore, it is time to hear from government ministers – women and men – about what they will do to ensure that Coalition enhances women’s rights – political, economic, social and cultural.

It’s long since time that political parties put serious effort into creating parity representation – 50 per cent women – rather than continuing to shuffle their biased packs.

Footnote: And what of the Liberal Democrats? If you only have seven women MPsAnd some need to be fighting in their constituencies with tiny majorities; and some may wish to distance themselves from the Coalition; and some have rebelled; you don’t have many left at all…

About the authors

Rosie Campbell is senior lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London.

Sarah Childs is professor of Politics and Gender at the University of Bristol.

Elizabeth Evans is lecturer in Politics at the University of Bristol.

This post originally appeared on the British Politics and Policy at LSE blog.