27 August 2012

Women and Alex Salmond: An academic postscript...

Last week, I took a skeptical look at the received wisdom, echoed most recently by the Economist magazine, that women in Scotland aren't terrifically keen on Alex Salmond. Trawling through polls going back to 2009, and looking at how satisfaction with his performance broke down by gender, I argued that the data suggests something of an "enthusiasm gap" for the First Minister.  Men like him more than women, but Scottish women did not assess his activities in Bute House significantly more negatively than Scottish men.  He comfortably drubs Cameron, Miliband, Clegg, Davidson, Rennie and Lamont amongst both men and women.

In response, one of the authors directed my attention towards a paper very recently published in the academic journal, Political Parties. For those interested and able to access it, the precise citation is: Robert Johns, Lynn Bennie and James Mitchell (2012) ‘Gendered nationalism: The gender gap in support for the Scottish National Party’ Party Politics 18(4) 581 – 601.  The piece focusses on the Holyrood election result of 2007.  According to the Scottish Election Survey for that year, 35% of men voted for the SNP on the regional list, compared to 27% of women. As we saw in the preliminary data released from the 2011 Scottish Election Survey, the SNP managed to close this gap to just 3% in the most recent Holyrood ballot, with 43% of women and 46% of men voting for the Nationalists on the list respectively.

Bracketing these recent developments, the Political Parties article examines alternative explanations for the gap we saw in 2007. (Johns, Bennie and Mitchell's conclusion, incidentally, is that men are more likely than women to vote for the SNP because men are more likely than women to support independence, for whatever reasons).  Amongst the factors considered by the authors was Alex Salmond's leadership. Were women "not keen", or at least less "keen" on him than men?  Here's the critical section:

“Here the SES (“Scottish Election Survey”) evidence comes from a series of leadership ratings on an 11-point like-dislike scale. The mean male rating of Salmond was around half a point higher than the mean female rating, a difference which appears more substantial in the light of the general tendency for women to report more positive evaluations. Salmond was the only politician included in the survey to elicit significantly higher ratings from male respondents. The upshot is that, where leader evaluations are controlled, the net gender gap narrows by around one-third. Two points are worth noting about this. Firstly while females were less positive than males about the SNP leader, they nonetheless rated him more highly in absolute terms than any of the other politicians. The implication is that, insofar as leadership can be account for the gender gap in SNP voting, this is because Salmond won support from men rather than losing it among women. Second, leadership evaluations are likely to be causally posterior to some of the factors already considered. For example, it could be that males preferred Alex Salmond because he led a party to which they were already particularly favourably disposed, perhaps because they share the SNP’s preference for independence. In that case, differences in leadership evaluations are a by-product and not a cause of the gender gap under study here.” [Johns, Bennie and Mitchell 2012, 588]

Quite coincidentally, this tallies rather neatly with the idea of an "enthusiasm gap" captured in the Ipsos-MORI polling on Salmond we were looking at last week, and gives the lie to the Economist's rather sketchy, rather crude assessment of the political sensibilities of female Scots. What is left unanswered, however, is why the devil women remain more reticent about independence than men.  The authors admit they don't know.  Neither do I.

If Johns, Bennie and Mitchell's thesis is correct, however, and the gender gap in SNP support in the 2007 election is attributable to a gender gap in support for independence, the changes in the Nationalists' electoral fortunes between 2011 and 2007 may repay close study for YesScotland.  After all, during this period of time, the party's constitutional policies were basically unaltered.  If the female vote faltered for the SNP in 2007, and more or less caught up with men in 2011, something must have changed. It may well be, however, that the two elections were simply fought in different terms, concerned with different priorities, and women's disagreement with independence was mostly just de-emphasised rather than altered or eliminated as a factor weighing against supporting the Nationalists between their tentative first and thumping second victories.

If something along these lines is the case, and the gist of the Jones, Bennie and Mitchell thesis holds for 2011 as in 2007, the SNP managed strongly to attract women's votes despite their attitudes to independence in the last election. In 2014, YesScotland faces a far more daunting task: to attract women to independence, despite independence. No pressure.


  1. It's a good job that Alex Salmond will step down from the leadership of the SNP next year...

  2. One feels uncomfortable about pointing it out as a male but doesn't this relate to a significant (but not overwhelming and absolute) gender difference in how men and women see and do politics?

    I must have attended hundreds of political meetings over the last 35 or so years and (unless some form of artificial delegate quota was in force) almost all of them were attended predominantly by men.

    Every survey of political party membership I've seen suggests that men are about twice as likely to join political parties as women.

    You found looking at Salmond's ratings that women were much more likely to not have an opinion than men were.

    And looking at UK level data we see a similar pattern for other party leaders - according to the most recent Ipsos/MORI poll women are 50% more likely to not know if the government is doing a good job than men, twice as likely as men to not know if they are satisfied with David Cameron, Miliband or Clegg.

    In fact on pretty much every question in the poll there are more women who don't know than men and this seems to be a general pattern on past polls as well.


    And yet women do not seem any less likely to use their vote than men - at least in UK general elections.

    Men it seems to me are simply more political than women in the Schmittian sense of defining their identity by taking sides - women on the other hand may be relatively more rational in their choices and perhaps have a better sense of the politically possible and of the limitations of their own knowledge.

    Which neatly inverts the old anti-suffragist narrative that women could not be trusted with votes because they were too emotional and unworldly to make important decisions like voting.

    In which case women's relative (and throughout we are talking here about a difference of a few percentage points in polls rather than absolutes) lack of enthusiasm for the cause of Scottish independence compared to men may simply reflect an entirely healthy mistrust of the claims of radical nationalism in general as well as a more realistic assessment of what is actually possible given the degree to which Scotland is enmeshed within the UK.

    I'd love to know if this is reflected in other places with a significant but perennially unsuccessful national separatist movement (Quebec, Wales, Catalonia, the Basque provinces etc) - but gendered differences in political attitudes seem remarkably unexplored.

  3. Groundskeeper Willie27 August 2012 at 17:20

    I still think it's because he's so fat.

  4. 'If the female vote faltered for the SNP in 2007, and more or less caught up with men in 2011, something must have changed.'

    What changed most between 2007 and 2011 was the crash in the Libdem vote (also the Sheridan immolation of the SSP) - not sure what this means re the gender gap tbh.

    Thinking of Sherry reminds me that 'women' are not necessarily a group. Some women of a certain age of my acquaintance went all shoogly legged when they saw him, younger women tended to be spooked by him. Eck lacks both the lust and the creep factors among women - which is a mercy I suppose.

  5. JohnB,

    Failing illness or scandal, I can't really see that happening!


    Plenty there. To pick up a few points: your comment about looking at the gendered character of other "separatist" movements elsewhere is a splendid one, and would make a grand blog. I'll look into it and see if I can find anything.

    Secondly, gendered membership of political parties is one aspect of the Johns, Bennie and Mitchell article I cited above. I didn't mention its findings for reasons of brevity, and of relevance, but since it's come up...

    According to the authors, who have gathered together the figures collected in various membership surveys over the years, the figures are as follows.

    In Scotland, SNP (2007) 32% of the membership were women. Scottish Labour (1997): 39%. Scottish Tories (1992): 61%. Greens (2002): 37%.

  6. Edwin,

    A reasonable observation: the Liberal vote went drifting, decreasing nationally from 2007's showings of 16.2% and 11.3% to 7.9% in constituencies and an even paltrier 5.2% in the regional vote, respectively. Contrary to some suggestions, the preliminary findings of the 2011 Scottish Election Survey suggest that the SNP's gains weren't a neat transfer from the Liberals, by snaffled voters from all of other parties. Out of curiosity, I'll have to dip back into the 2007 study to see what sort of gender spread the Liberal Democrats enjoyed before their trouncing in 2011. Will pop anything I find up here.

    On your second point, I entirely agree that it isn't helpful to think of women as a homogeneous group. Given the limited data we have, gender has to be the beginning of an enquiry which, like the academic article I cited, simultaneously looks at a range of issues in addition to gender, if we're going to work up a better idea of what's going on here.

  7. Couldn't it simply be that women are more hesitant than men? They weren't sure in 2007, but saw the government was competent, so were more confident in 2011.

  8. Sorry to but in LPW but I need to comment.

    On the wish list of John B, apparently, is the disappearance of Alex Salmond from leadership of the SNP next year.

    Why would this be so?

    Is AS too powerful for John B's preferred leader, he certainly has the greatest of ease dealing with them during their somewhat pseudo-grandstanding performances in the Holyrood limelight.

    I suggest JB should try working out just where Scotland would be now and even worse, where we might be heading, if we had the leadership of Jack McConnell or Iain Gray.

    I don't even mention Lamont or the other two incumbent leaders, they are just too risable to be taken seriously. Patrick Harvey at least acts like his own man and carries the job out properly.

    So what's your point John B?

    Do you really think there is no other competent leader in the SNP ranks, should a misfortune befall Alex Salmond?

    Perhaps, you should be lamenting that there is none capable elsewhere in the opposition parties of leading a Scottish Government.

  9. It's interesting that photos of Salmond in the Scotsman tend to verge on the grotesque or the comical. Who can forget Ecks reaction to a Tunnock's teacake?

    A photoshopped pic of Call One Dave was released by the Tories, five months later he was PM...

  10. As a female, I look at Salmond and see a smug, arrogant a**hole, if you don't mind my language.

    His demeanour might put women off as well as I think women are far more prone when it comes to voting and governance tend to take a step back and think about the problems whilst men are more likely to blunder into the debate and try to wing it.

  11. I think a combination of Conan's comment and the 61% female membership of the Conservative Party hits the nail.

    Women like to see men in a well hung suit.

  12. Groundskeeper Willie30 August 2012 at 10:52

    Conan the Librarian™ said...

    "It's interesting that photos of Salmond in the Scotsman tend to verge on the grotesque or the comical"

    You can't polish a turd.

  13. But you can choose to publish a photo of an all-bran turd, or a vindaloo and Guinness turd.

  14. I suggest that the gender gap in attitudes toward independence can be accounted for by gender differences in attitudes toward risk. There is ample evidence that females are more risk averse than males, the causes being cultural and biological to varying degrees. It’s also worth noting that there is an age element to attitudes toward risk - female appetite for risk decreasing in their thirties and male in their forties, apparently.



    Obviously the future is uncertain. Independence is perceived as increasing that uncertainty vis-a-vis the status quo (no change). Which actually *is* riskier requires an assessment of the respective risks but perception matters a lot. To make an informed decision requires the same for the rewards side.

    I’m sure that the Yes campaign understands all of this perfectly. Blair Jenkins neatly turns the problem on its head by pondering how many Scots would vote to join the Union if Scotland was still independent. The assuaging of change-related fear, therefore, becomes understandable but it also has a downside. It has the potential to repel those who are actually looking for just that – change. Otherwise what is the point?

    Re the comments about Salmond’s personal appearance: when politicians bombard us with the style over substance fallacy, perhaps they are only giving us what we deserve. Tearing their policies and performances to shreds is one thing, insults about personal appearance is something different altogether.

  15. I know I'm a bit late with this comment and have to state that as I am not in the country at the moment and sadly don't expect to be in Scotland in 2014 for the Referendum I would like to make a comment. This is because in my personal experience as a Scot who has voted in every election since I was old enough, as a female I have always voted for the party which to my understanding showed any possibility of delivering independence for Scotland. Apart from one abberation I must confess when I foolishly voted for Mrs Thatcher thinking that a female might actually make a better job of getting the country out of the mess in which it seemed to be perpetually mired. (There! they say confession is supposed to be good for the soul!!) How sadly I was disillusioned! And how quickly. It was a mistake I never repeated. To vote Tory I mean.
    Therefore for many years I voted Liberal, Lib/Dem or SNP (my preference) if a candidate was available.
    I don't think therefore it is a gender thing to hold to a particular political party, it may just be a matter of the availability of a candidate of the party of one's choice to vote for.
    I think it is so wonderful to see that the choice of outright independence for Scotland is there in front of the Scottish electorate and sincerely wish that exiled Scots like myself might finally have a say in bringing it about.