Is gender the next party dividing line?

A few days before the recent UK General Election, I read Colin Crouch’s essay ‘Post-Democracy and Populism’. Crouch ends the piece by considering whether the political centre and left have any social identities that can support their movements in the way that populists of the right have appealed to national identity. The one he suggests is gender:

I have written elsewhere that, just as the original labour movement was essentially a male phenomenon that interpreted the problems of all working people through the eyes of ‘breadwinner’ men, in post-industrial society, many of the problems of such people may be best articulated by women. They experience more keenly issues of work–life balance, of precariousness in the labour market, of deficiencies of care services, of the manipulation of consumers, though these are problems that men share too. They are found in large numbers working in the public and care services that embody the main challenges to both neoliberal and intolerant world views. This is unlikely to mean the formation of women’s parties, and in any case the hope is that women will become the spokespeople of many men too. It does require a strong civil society surrounding formal politics with other forms of representation, including organisations that express women’s continuing experience of various kinds of exclusion and the development of political agendas to counter them.

There is perhaps a further element. Much about rightist populism is very macho: from the male swaggering of leaders like Putin and Trump to the violent fringe that attaches to most xenophobic movements. Is it fanciful to see in the very recent widespread resurgence of feminism a reaction against that ugly face of masculine politics?

All of which seemed particularly prescient when I learned that 2019 had the largest gender gap in support for the main parties on record. According to Lord Ashcroft’s post-vote polls, the Conservative vote was 6 percentage points higher among men, and the Labour vote 7 percentage points higher among women (although it is worth emphasising that more women still voted Conservative, just the margin was narrower than among men).

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This outcome seems to reflect the electoral campaign. In line with Crouch’s comment about ‘macho’ right populism, the Conservative party seemed to lean in to Boris Johnson’s perceived ‘laddishness’. The Guardian’s political editor was among those commenting on the ‘blokey’ tone of his photocalls – for example his Jeremy Clarkson impression in a digger a few days before polling day. Electorally, Johnson as positioned himself as tribune of the ‘gammons’– who among other their features, are very much male.

The contrast to Jeremy Corbyn – in character and portrayal – could not have been sharper. Teetotal, vegetarian (both of which are more common among women than men), at least part of the hostility towards Corbyn seemed directed at his softness, which could be read as a failure to conform to traditional masculinity. Perhaps the best illustration of this lack of toughness was the continued flak he received for his evasiveness on whether he would use nuclear weapons.

If there’s anything to this, there’s a good chance the gender divide between the parties will grow stronger. Women now make up a majority of Labour MPs. There are more female Labour MPs than female Conservative MPs, despite the Tories holding 81% more seats in parliament. Moreover, it is widely believed that the next Labour leader will be a woman.

Gender has always mattered in politics, but it has almost never been the key electoral divide. We still remain quite far from a world in which the genders have sorted themselves neatly into different parties. Yet in the 2019 UK election, as indeed in political developments elsewhere, we can begin to see the outlines of what such a system would look like – in tone and rhetoric, if not yet in policy. Is this the start of something new?

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