in February, before Labour's defeat in the 2010 Westminster election, Jim Murphy treated us to a pious homily, widely interpreted as an indelicate attempt to "play the religion card", better to win over "faith-based" or in the alternative "values" voters, whoever they are. At times, in the Scottish context, the concept of the West Coast "Catholic" and "Muslim" votes are invoked but I'd argue that neither are a strict mainstay of the political discourse. Their appearances are episodic, cited to explain a particular turmoil, scandal or political stratagem. Behind the scenery, however, in party focus groups and in internal polling, I'm sure that such concepts are appealed to and manipulated in the hope of gaining or maintaining high office. Interesting, then, to read Jennifer Dempsie (a former Mosca to the Maximum Eck) arguing in the last edition of the Scotland on Sunday, that "Winning over female voters crucial to SNP ambitions". Dempsie contends that:
"Apart from devising a bargain basement manifesto, the greatest challenge the SNP faces is how to return to government with a greater share of the vote. I think this can only be done if the gender imbalance in the party's support - the lower number of female supporters to male - is tackled."
What is the evidence for this claim? Like the other Scots psephological categories mentioned, lurking in the political unconscious of the press - and occasionally finding deliberate expression - there is certainly the idea that women are generally less Nationalist and nationalist-inclined than the male electorate, attitudes albeit fluxuating with the times. We needn't be entirely impressionistic about this theory. Chapters in Gerry Hassan's (2009) edited volume on The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power address some of these questions directly. Fiona Mackay and Meryl Kennedy combined to write on "Women's Political Representation in the SNP: Gendered Paradoxes and Puzzles", while James Mitchell, Robert Johns and Lynn Bennie ask "Who are the SNP members?", drawing on evidence unearthed by their recent Economic and Social Research Council funded empirical research project into the socio-demography of SNP members. Table 6.1 (Hassan 2009, 69) outlined the membership figures.
In 2007/08, 31.8% of SNP members were women, 68.2% men.
It is worth noting that having a male-majority membership doesn't place the SNP as a wildly aberrant outlier in comparison to other Scots political parties. The gap, however, is undeniably significant. The chapter also emphasises a number of other interesting points extracted from the material furnished by their respondents' , including the fact that less than 8% of SNP members are under 35 years of age, 35% have a degree, 6.7% of members were born in England, while 51% had lived furth of Scotland for six months or more, just under half of them in England. But back to my primary theme. Mackay & Kennedy's piece includes a gendered analysis of voting in the 2007 Holyrood poll (2009, 50 - 1). Here, the gender gap in SNP support is plain.
On the constituency ballot, 41% of the male electorate supported the SNP, compared to only 32% of women voters. On the list, 35% of men voted for the SNP, but only 27% of women.
It is all very well to present this quantitative representation of opinion. The whys and the wherefores of ordinary life, with its uncertainties, ambivalences, unconscious motivations - these cannot be neatly or straightforwardly captured to explain why there is a 9 and 8 point divergence in SNP support or what the party should be doing to appeal more to women voters. Dempsie's piece is largely polemical, buttressed here and there with bits and pieces of evidence.
... increasing female representation to attract female support is just part of the solution. Adopting a more positive and less rough-and-tumble approach to political communications is absolutely critical. All too often, not just women, but men also, are turned off by the hard words of the political debate.
She doesn't mention another relevant piece of recent data, which might suggest how the SNP's "women strategy", such as it is, is faring. Regular readers might recall in May of this year, I drew your attention to some sections of the 2009 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey , touching on the electorate's faith in the Scottish Government to make fair decisions. Here is the relevant graph and an explanation of the figures.
On gendered trust in the Scottish Government, the survey rather surprisingly discovered that:
"Women were significantly less positive than men about a number of aspects of government in Scotland in 2009. For example, just 29% of women, compared with 43% of men, trusted the Scottish Government 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' to make fair decisions."
In 2007, 50% of men and 44% of women expressed 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of trust in the Scottish Executive to make fair decisions - a gap of just 6 points. But by 2009, while the proportion of men who trusted the Scottish Government on this measure had fallen to 43%, the proportion of women who said the same fell even more sharply, to 29%. In fact, it appears that while the views of men remained more positive in 2009, trust among women had fallen back to close to 2006 levels (33% of men, 30% of women). If indeed Dempsie is correct and the SNP's fortunes in 2011 depend on convincing Scottish women of our virtues and faithfulness, the responses to the Social Attitude Survey may counsel a serious change of tack and a far more concerted effort on our part.