Analysis by Carolyn Skelton.
FOR THE FIRST TIME in many years, during this year’s UK election campaign, a female party leader has achieved a level of prominence and significance. She is one of 3 women party leaders who are forging a renewed, and often passionate, commitment to strong left wing politics that are both anti-austerity and pro-gender equality. Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Natalie Bennett (Green Party UK), and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) lead parties that provide policies aiming to improve the lot of women, and the precariat, while challenging the current powerful elites.
Politics and gender inequality
The September 2014 Sex and Power in the UK report showed that, while there is a slight majority of women in the population, they make up only 23% of MPs and ministers and 33% of local councillors.
Mothers, working class women, and BME [Black and Minority Ethnic] women tend to be highly marginalised in Westminster politics. In Scotland the SNP government has only 1 female MP to every 4 male ones.
Female leaders; and the new left wing conviction politics
The SNP is seen as being in the tradition of Scandinavian social democracies. Men made up the majority of SNP voters in previous elections. Furthermore, there has been a recent decline in the proportion of Scottish women MPs in Westminster. However, this looks set to rise significantly in this week’s election. It is possible that this election will deliver women as holding 30% of the Scottish seats at Westminster, compared with 22% in 2010.
Leanne Wood is the most out there of the 3 leaders, being highly critical of the Labour Party and expressing a desire for a new kind of party of the people. Her party explicit embraces “decentralist socialism.”
According to a BBC report, the Green Party usually gains a slightly higher proportion of female voters, while a substantial majority of males vote for the SNP, BNP and UKIP. Furthermore women tend to express less interest in politics than men. Anecdotal evidence suggests the masculine style of combative, game playing in politics, and failure to engage with the realities of women’s lives is partly responsible for this.
The Washington Post reported on a poll conducted by the Guardian/ICM Unlimited, comparing the male and female support for participants in a televised leaders’ debate. This included 4 male leaders and the 3 female ones (Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood.)
Thus compared with women, men favored the performance of two male leaders: Nigel Farange (by a substantial 9 points) and Nick Clegg (by 4 points). Greater support among men for UKIP was consistent with broader gender gaps in support for radical right-wing parties found throughout previous British and European research.
By contrast, women favored the performance of the three women leaders: Wood (by a substantial 11 points, the largest gender gap recorded in the survey), Bennett (by 9 points) and Sturgeon (by 5 points).
For the two major leaders – Ed Miliband and David Cameron – there was no significant gender gap in judgments about their performance.
Leanne Wood was a stand out in gaining strong support from women. This probably reflects her assertive and passionate style. In the debate she got a lot of praise for the way she gave UKIP leader Nigel Farage a “dressing down” for “his comments about so-called “health tourists” with HIV, ” as reported by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in last month’s Guardian.
Wood grew up in a working class Welsh community where she witnessed and experienced deprivation during the miners’ strike. This spurred her to become politically active in her youth, but she was not impressed by the “right wing reactionary” and “generally old-fashioned dinosaur politics” she saw in the Labour Party.
Wood says she doesn’t engage with Labour, but does have “regular contact with Nicola Sturgeon and Natalie Bennett.” Cosslett puts this down to Plaid Cymru’s strong anti-austerity priorities. Under her leadership, the party aims to rebalance power and wealth, and end the Conservative government as well as to be more focused on countering power imbalances and inequality than on cultural nationalism.
Leanne Wood has called for political parties to work towards gender balance. (See also Wikipedia, and “what is the Plaid Cymru?“)
In her article of December 2014 in the Financial Times, Murie Dickie reported that Sturgeon, was motivated by her anger at “the social cost of Thatcherism” in Scotland. Like Wood, Sturgeon came from a working class background and saw a lot of poverty in the area where she lived. It angered and motivated her. In the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 she achieved prominence as an extremely able debater, with “a down-to-earth manner and steely determination” that came across well on television. She also engaged extremely well with small groups of voters on the campaign trail and on social media.
Now Sturgeon is focusing somewhat away from the more narrow focus of Scottish nationalism and highlighting the importance of gaining power through independence, while still embracing an “inclusive sense of Scottishness”.
While the mainstream media tends to characterise her as being dangerous, she is the most featured woman in very male dominated election campaign.
After becoming first minister to Scotland Sturgeon made working towards gender equality one of her top priorities. Sturgeon appointed equal numbers of men and women to her cabinet, wanted to push Scottish companies to have more gender-balance on their boards, to see better childcare provisions, and to support women to be better able to balance work and family life.
Last month Sturgeon launched her parties pledge on gender equality. This includes targeting areas where current austerity policies have hit women particularly hard. Consequently, the SNP aims to increase free childcare, end zero hour contracts and raise the minimum wage. The pledge also commits the party to end the gender pay gap, call for equal representation on company boards, continue free education, increase the number of apprenticeships and counter the “glass ceiling” that thwarts women’s ambitions.
The UK Green Party also has a strong policy for gender equality and women’s rights. This includes focus on equal pay, maternity and paternity leave, reproductive rights, the extra disadvantages experienced by women as part time workers, and retired pensioners, the necessary but unpaid caring work done predominantly by women, domestic violence, the under-reporting and low conviction rate for rape and sexual violence.
These three very capable women leaders, while not getting the media coverage of male leaders, do suggest that there is a desire in significant parts of the electorate for a return to strong, passionate left wing conviction politics: politics that are culturally inclusive and engage with the lives of women, while being anti-austerity, pro-community and pro gender equality.