3 August 2010

Women, the SNP & its gender voting gap

I count myself among those who recoil somewhat from the familiar crudely-cut blocks of  popular American psephology - the woman's vote, the Hispanic vote, the black vote, college graduates, the blue-collar vote and so on and so on.  Despite our occasional tendency to ape (particularly political) Americana, our political discourse seems to have largely eschewed and resisted the discourse where the "public" or the "electorate" is imagined first and foremost as a conglomerate of homogeneous groups, conceived as boasting more or less unified interests. Admittedly 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.


  1. The gender gap is an odd one, and I can't see myself why it exists - I have always been made welcome in the SNP. The women members I know are committed and enthusiastic campaigners, despite being usually outnumbered by men.

    The female friends I have outside of politics aren't interested in politics generally, and are not specifically anti-SNP.

    On the doorstep, some women say "oh, I'm not into politics", but that's not really true - when you talk with them, you tend to find that they don't relate the issues in their lives to the political process.

    What concerns me is that I don't see the gap, and therefore can't cross it.

  2. I'm pleased to hear your views on this question Alison, both as someone who is more actively involved in the party than I am and as a female of the species.

    As I noted at the outset, I think we have to be cautious about what knowledge such quantitative approaches can furnish us with and what knowledge it doesn't. Equally, gender does seem to be involved in how people vote, but how it is related and breaks down and is informed by innumerable factors which might be involved - that isn't clear at all. What is suggested may not be a gap, per se, but a series of complicated fractures. Not a great rent to be readily o'erleaped, but a honeycombed network of concerns. The metaphor of a 'gap' is perhaps more problematic than it appears, suggesting that a sufficiently sagacious political engineer might readily and comparatively simply "bridge" it.

    Politically, I suppose, this complexity isn't really interesting in itself. In terms of party political strategy, the trick isn't to gain a full sociological understanding - but to know enough about your audience to achieve the more limited goal of beating your opponents and not losing yourself.

    I also think the middle point you make is generally very important. I'd call it something like the "institutional" attitude towards politics. At times, it is a very pernicious form of Quietism and an excellent way of keeping politicise-able cares outside the formal institutional "threshold" - and the population mute and pliable and compliant.

  3. LPW

    I find this apparent lack of support for the SNP from female voters particularly puzzling (I have been puzzled a lot today) because as far as I am concerned the SNP have the most formidable female politician not just in Scotland, but the UK in Nicola Sturgeon.

    Maybe for the 2011 Holyrood election Nicola should play a more prominent role, as a equal partner in the hustings with Alex Salmond.

    I would however hope that if we do give Nicola a more prominent role we give her better ammunition than we had at the general election. How anyone ever thought that some prat running up a hill and shouting Scotland would be the lever to change someones vote is beyond me.

  4. This question doesn't get discussed often in public or in much depth, Dubbieside. I imagine there are a number of people (I say optimistically...) who read the gendered voting figures I mentioned above with a sense of novelty and surprise and puzzlement. There are I think two levels to this, mentioned in my response to Bellegrove Belle above

    (1) what political strategies might the party pursue to appeal to more women? and (2) outside the ambit of formal, partisan politics, how should the phenomenon suggested by these figures be properly understood? These two concerns are obviously related in important ways, but what they aim to achieve is rather different.

    Your comment about Nicola suggests an important point - levels of support (or lack of support) can't be simply reduced to the presence of absence of high-profile party figures.

  5. LPW

    The people who should be reading the gender voting figures are the SNP hierarchy.

    An election campaign, when you analyze it is just like any other marketing campaign, in that what you are trying to achieve is a change of peoples habits, be it buying a particular product, or in this case changing how people vote.

    To be successful you need to know where you are starting from, and identify any potential weaknesses. It would appear that a major SNP weakness is the gender vote, or rather the lack of the gender vote.

    Maybe we would be better spending more time highlighting policies that resonate more with Scottish women. High up the list would be, to my mind, the continuation of free personal care, but the NHS including prescription charges and of course education. These are my views from a male perspective, maybe some of your lady readers can give a better insight.

    Re Nicola, during my marketing training, albeit a lot of years ago, I was always told, if you have an ace, play it.

  6. Fair point on the bridge/crossing thing ;-) I was thinking more of a gap to be filled.

    Using females to market to females isn't quite enough in my view, and could feel a bit patronising. We're not all the same, and while Nicola will appeal to some, she can't be realistically expected to reach everyone (in the same way that some just voters don't like Alex and I can't stand certain Labourites!).

    The other very talented women in the SNP aren't high-profile enough nationally. I look forward to hearing more from Eilidh Whiteford, for example.

    Of course, the policy has to be there too and more practically a means of connecting policy to reality. I agree with Dubbieside that the guy-running-up-a-hill thing didn't really work!

  7. My perceptions are anecdotal, gleaned from many conversations with women who are interested in politics and from a feminist and left-leaning perspective, so are likely not representative of great numbers of individuals. However, there is concern that the SNP are not focussed on women's issues. One example is an assumption that Scottish control over abortion legislation would threaten existing access because the SNP will not hold out against the usual anti-choice movements.

    Equalities legislation remaining a reserved power means that the Government cannot meaningfully engage with those issues. These are crucial issues for many women. A lack of control or assurances of protection of hard won rights play into anxieties that certain elements of Scottish society would roll back these gains if they were devolved.

    These perceptions may well be wrong, but somehow they need to be tackled in order to increase numbers of women voters, at least amongst some demographics.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. On the campaigning front, you are absolutely right Dubbieside. Not being privy to the internal strategies discussed by the party high heid yins myself, I can't be certain. However, I'd be most surprised if concerns about alleviating this gender gap were not encompassed in those discussions.

    I'm a bit two headed. As a supporter, I'm obviously concerned with those campaigning strategies - but as someone with an interest in the sociology of Scotland - I find the wider question of why levels of support apparently breaks down along gendered lines equally fascinating.

  10. An interesting case in point, that less than compelling "Scotland needs champions" video. I'm not objecting simply because the dominant character in those videos was a man - but scaling the rugged hillside, the relatively young, fit looking chap, the invocation of champions and the rough and tumble associations and gladiatorial turns - all strike me as rather masculine, paternalistic images and symbols. I'm not suggesting that such imagery will not appeal to women - questions of affinity and iconography, like everything else I can think of, hardly breaks down in any straightforward way along gendered lines. But perhaps one problematic dimension of the vignette is precisely this identification (or subtly reinforcing existing impressions) of the party with unremitting masculinity.

  11. An interesting perspective, Anonymous. While I have friends who are of a similar demographic, they're not Scots or don't live in Scotland and as a result, have no reason to take a view on the SNP. I very much appreciate your insights, by way of compensation.

  12. LPW Bellgrovebelle

    For any advertising to work there must be a message highlighting a benefit to the person who changed their habits to either buy a new product or vote a different way.

    There was absolutely no message or benefit whatsoever from the Scotland needs champions (thanks LPW I had forgotten the main theme, which is also indicative as I am a committed SNP supporter and voter) for anyone voting SNP.

    I cannot believe that the SNP did not test this waste of money before they ran with it, and if they did test it and still ran with it the testing panel needs looked at closely.

    As the upcoming campaign for 2011 will see the most negative campaigning from Labour ever, as they have no record at either Holyrood or Westminster worth campaigning on. We better hope that we have a campaign that gives a clear message about a progressive successful Scotland that I believe most people would like to see, but as yet have not been convinced that we can achieve it.

  13. I can't say that I agree with the generalisation, Voice of Our Own. I don't see why women should be any more passive, impressionable and unskeptical readers of skewed political coverage than men. Equally, I can see that how people get their political information and form their impressions of parties is an important consideration. On one level, that is as simple as what papers they read or programmes they watch and what attitude those sources adopt towards the SNP. On another, it is the finicky, subtle touches which gently and often imperceptibly qualify how the party is imagined and presented.

  14. Dubbieside,

    The Champions rhetoric was clearly an offer to be everybody's daddy. It was a diffuse proposal, probably too diffuse to compel. Such are the difficulties of SNP Westminster campaigns. The clear benefit of Holyrood elections for the SNP is that clear proposals and policies can be articulated, with the SNP having a clear chance to affect them in office. Like you, I'd be astounded if Labour managed to run an even remotely positive campaign. I've scratched my head, and still can't work out what the devil they'd say.

    I'd be delighted to be surprised.

  15. Some prat running up a hill and shouting Scotland is exactly the kind of thing that puts women off. It was clear from that ppb that the SNP Westminster campaign was about motivating existing SNP voters to turn out and vote, rather than winning new voters. That strategy worked but Holyrood is of course a very different matter.

    The SNP hierarchy Dubbieside are in my view very aware of this issue. The 2007 election campaign was very much about appealing to women voters if you recall the core themes. I expect the 2011 campaign will also be designed around that imperative.

    The difficulty the party hierarchy has is that any perceived "softening" of the independence message tends to annoy the purists. Some members see it as moving away from our core aim. In reality that's not what it is about. It is just a different way of pitching our message, as women tend not to respond to aggressive claims about independence but look at things in a rather more practical and personal way.

    To my mind we have not yet refined the independence message adequately. I remember a female member talking at a Conference about why she joined the SNP back in the 1970s as a direct consequence of her involvement in the women's movement. It is about making the connection between personal freedom and independence - which women have fought long and hard for - and the freedom and independence of the communities that make up Scotland. That's what I think we need to work on.

  16. Indy,

    You may recall a recent post here where some of the "purist-type" tensions you describe were brought out and aired. I particularly admire your formulation above - not abandoning core issues, but reflecting on how those issues are imagined and talked about by the party. It strikes me that your point is also reminiscent of Peter MacColl's recent analysis of the Scottish Green Party in the Scottish Left Review.

  17. Interesting stuff Indy. However, I'm not entirely clear what you mean by 'aggressive claims about independence'.
    Is the very idea of independence itself aggressive in that sense? Is there a scale where we have unionism at one end, nationalism at the other and, in the middle, softer/ less aggressive positions?
    You contrast this with the 'practical and personal' concerns of women. For me, independence is all about practical and personal considerations.

  18. As you may notice, I removed a previous comment of mine which, in retrospect was probably ill-considered (the submitting of it rather than the content of it).
    There are, however, studies analysing the reponses of women / men to advertising which, it seems to me, have implications for responses to general media output.

  19. I hope you didn't feel the need to delete the comment on my account, Voice of Our Own - or because of anything I said. I'm very much committed to the idea that matters discussed here should be debated and aired as the mind tends. I'm a great believer that artificial constraints should not be put on nor nicety limit what we can ask and speculate and guess at as we inch along the pilgrim's way to clearer understanding. Where I disagree, I always try to do so in am attentive spirit, rather than a silencing one.

  20. No worries LPW. I just felt that my comment might take the debate off in a somewhat fractious direction and generate more heat than light.

  21. You may be right, but I regret the loss Voice of Our Own. I enjoy my heat and my light! "To everything a season..." and all that.

  22. I can't take seriously the suggestion that women are turned off from SNP and attracted to Labour because they don't like the rough and tumble approach of politics. Labour are the original dirty squad. There must be another reason for the gender difference. Perhaps women are more likely to work in the public sector, which with its strong unions is more Labour-leaning than the rest of society?

    Also, if more women than men vote Labour, does this indicate that Labour has a man problem?

    The promotional video from the last election was toe-curlingly pish. I hope the party asked for their money back. Have a vid instead of a worried woman talking about heating her parents home, cost of care for the elderly, education of her children, losing her job in retranchments, that kind of thing.