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Gender and the Independence Referendum, #GE2015, Brexit, and beyond

Published: 7 October 2015

How do women engage differently in referenda and elections? And why does this matter? These were some of the questions explored at Feminizing Politics ESRC Seminar in Edinburgh last month on ‘Voice: Women, the Independence Referendum 2015, and the General Election 2015’. Cera Murtagh (University of Edinburgh) reports.

This post originally appeared on the Gender Politics at Edinburgh blog.

The UK sits at a critical juncture, with the future of the state, its borders and its external relations, far from settled. In 2014, a referendum was held to decide on Scottish independence; in 2017 another will determine whether the UK remains within the European Union. Meanwhile, the 2015 General Election saw some fundamental shifts with implications for the country’s political and constitutional future. The ballot box stands central to these outcomes. And gender matters in that debate.

Elections and referenda in the UK, and what they mean for women, were the agenda of the second seminar in the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) series Feminizing Politics and Power in the UK: Access, Voice and Accountability. The roundtable event, organised by Professor Fiona Mackay and Dr Meryl Kenny at the University of Edinburgh, brought together experts from across the UK to discuss the gender implications of the independence referendum, the EU referendum, the 2015 General Election and the 2016 devolved elections. Looking back, forward and, indeed, beyond the UK’s shores, researchers and practitioners reflected on the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for women’s engagement in referenda and elections, and on the lessons that can be learned.

Kicking off discussion on the 2014 independence referendum, Professor Ailsa Henderson presented findings from the ESRC Scottish Referendum Study. Addressing the much-debated ‘gender gap’, in which women were statistically more likely to vote No, the study tried to unpick the factors that lay behind this difference and, in particular, whether it could be explained by higher risk aversion amongst women voters. 43% of female respondents supported a Yes vote, compared to 53% amongst male respondents. Despite speculation by certain commentators, however, Professor Henderson’s study did not find consistent evidence that lower support for independence amongst women was linked to risk.

Amongst a host of other interesting findings, the Scottish Referendum Study revealed that Yes voters were about twice as likely as No voters to remain politically engaged after the referendum, with little difference between men and women on this score.

Moving to the approaching ‘Brexit’ vote, Professor Yvonne Galligan of Queens University Belfast provided a comparative overview of referenda. Underlining the importance of the 2017 poll, Professor Galligan pointed out that, despite numerous EU-related referenda since its formation, this will be the first time voters have been given the choice of whether to stay or leave the Union. Gender gaps commonly emerge in referenda, in terms of positioning and perceived knowledge of the issues, she told participants, and these gaps can be exploited by the campaigns. For this reason gender differences matter and should be a key focus for strategists and information campaigns.

As the discussion opened to the floor, participants broached the question of engagement: how might women be engaged in the Brexit debate? Invoking the UK’s recent experience with referenda, Rachel Ormston from Natcen questioned whether the pattern was more likely to resemble the vibrant engagement of the 2014 ‘indyref’ or the non-starter effect of the 2010 Alternative Vote poll. Voices around the table echoed these concerns: the independence campaign resonated with women and opened up civic spaces that felt empowering – something the Brexit campaign so far shows little signs of emulating.

Dr Roberta Guerrina from the University of Surrey also pointed to a lack of knowledge amongst voters in general about the role of the EU, in areas like employment equality. This knowledge deficit could see disappointing levels of engagement and turnout, she warned.

Tracking engagement in the cybersphere, Professor Laura Cram from the University of Edinburgh reported on her research of political activity on Twitter. The study has found minimal engagement on EU-related issues by Twitter users and a vast difference in the ways men and women engage with political issues. While more women than men tweet, about three quarters of tweets related to politics are posted by men.

In order to tackle this engagement problem, Professor Joni Lovenduski of Birkbeck called for the Brexit campaign to embrace big ideas that capture the public imagination. Likewise, Professor Galligan predicted that the campaigns will ultimately come down to fundamental questions of values. While Brexit has so far been dominated by England, she added, opportunities exist for the devolved nations to develop distinct campaigns that are meaningful in those contexts.

Turning to elections, Dr Rosie Campbell from Birkbeck and Dr Peter Allen from Queen Mary University of London presented an analysis of the role played by sex and gender in the 2015 General Election. Women featured more prominently in the media coverage of the 2015 campaign, compared to 2010, they reported. Amongst other results, the study found female respondents to be more favourable than their male counterparts towards female party leaders, but also towards (then) Labour Leader Ed Milliband and Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg.

Looking ahead, panellists reflected on how these events might shape the upcoming devolved elections in May 2016. Reporting on developments in Wales, Professor Laura McAllister from the University of Liverpool raised the issue of female leadership and whether descriptive representation is having a discernible impact on policy and culture in the Welsh Assembly.

Meanwhile, Professor Galligan noted that Northern Ireland remains an outlier in terms of its low rate of women’s representation, with women making up only 24% of candidates in the General Election this year. Nevertheless, there are signs of a contagion effect from the Republic of Ireland and mainland UK, with public demand for gender equality on the rise.

Closer to home, Juliet Swann from the Electoral Reform Society and the University of Edinburgh’s Professor James Mitchell sketched out the trends emerging ahead of the Holyrood elections. Gender quotas are back on the agenda in Scotland, the room heard, recently embraced by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and continuing to be adopted by the Scottish Labour Party. And, given the projected success of the SNP in the coming polls, Juliet Swann underlined the importance of the party’s candidate selections for securing a gender balanced outcome. She also noted that the clear-out of Labour MPs in Scotland in May leaves almost all seats up for grabs in 2020 – a clear opportunity for the party to put forward a gender equal slate of candidates.

Professor Mitchell commented on the opportunity the independence referendum had offered newly-engaged women activists to stand for the SNP in the 2015 General Election. While drawing attention to advances in gender equality north of the border however, he also pointed to the fact that women’s representation continues to lag at local level.

Drawing the debate to a close, Professor Lovenduski and Professor Sarah Childs (Principal Investigator) of the University of Bristol summed up the core themes of the day. Amongst other thoughts, participants were left with the question of whether substantive representation is taking a significant stride forward in the UK, as feminist views become part of mainstream political debate. The roundtable parted with a call for action, for a comprehensive audit of gender politics in the UK.

The seminar was co-hosted by the ESRC Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh. The next in the ESRC seminar series Feminizing Politics and Power in the UK: Access, Voice and Accountability will be held at Birkbeck, University of London on 13-14 January 2016. Follow along at #esrcfempol.

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