Women are more likely to say they ‘don’t know’ whether Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal is good or bad for the country. Roberta Guerrina (University of Bristol), Toni Haastrup (University of Stirling), Katharine Wright (Newcastle University) and Annick Masselot (University of Canterbury) argue that this reflects the way that Brexit has normalised a form of toxic masculinity that damages the public sphere.
As the country prepares for its first winter election in 96 years, pundits are still trying to make sense of what appears to be an increasingly volatile electorate. This general election has been called as a result of the government’s failure to get agreement for the revised Withdrawal Agreement Bill, and as the biggest political crisis the country has seen in a lifetime, Brexit is inevitably shaping many of the debates. And just as Brexit’s gendered nature was apparent from early in the referendum campaign, questions about “Johnson’s women problem” and the large number of women MPs choosing to step away from politics have informed the 2019 General Election campaign.
Women gained the right to vote just one hundred years ago, yet their full electoral citizenship remains elusive. This is even more so for women from lower socio-economic backgrounds and women of colour. The issue of women’s political participation and engagement should be a concern for us all, as they are indicators of the health of a democracy.
So how should we approach integrating gender into electoral discussions? As a starting point, it is important to acknowledge that gender scholars have consistently been highlighting the deeply gendered nature of political structures, voter activation, and more recently Brexit. Gender gaps in political participation, engagement and self-efficacy have been the subject of several studies that have sought to unpack country-level differences, gender-generational gaps, and the way political parties try to win women’s votes. Pundits have accordingly (re)discovered gender as a variable for analysis in trying to predict the results of the General Election. For those familiar with the literature and debates, this analysis very much feels like plus ça change.
But this time something is different. This election feels different for the magnitude, the scope and the long-term impact it will have on the country. In many ways, the politics driving the election are part of a continuum from the 2016 EU referendum campaign through to the 2017 election and beyond – reflecting a failure to engage women’s interests and concerns about the future of the country, with or without Brexit.
A YouGov survey run on 20-21 October 2019 is quite instructive in this regard. On questions about attitudes towards Johnson’s new deal with the EU, the most interesting results are to be found in the “don’t know” category. On the question of whether Johnson’s deal was good or bad, 44% of women and 25% of men respondents said they “did not know or had not seen enough to express a judgement”. This pattern appears consistently throughout the survey on key issues, e.g. whether there should be another referendum.
There are two ways to interpret the data. It could be taken as a measure of women’s lower levels of political engagement and self-efficacy over high salience political issues; and, in turn, it could be construed as a marker of men’s higher levels of political competence. Alternatively, it can be seen as the performance of masculinity in the public space which requires decisiveness and assertiveness on high salience issues. It is this latter explanation that raises more interesting questions about how the process of Brexit has normalised a form of toxic masculinity that has become manifest in a highly divisive political discourse. By changing the focus of attention from women to men, we can start to open a space to talk about the performance of masculinities in the context of Brexit – because the 2019 election is, after all, about Brexit.
Women’s votes matter in the 2019 General Election, even if the timing of the election has contributed towards their disenfranchisement, making them less likely to vote. A winter election means that door-to-door canvassing and the act of voting itself will largely be conducted in the dark, making women less likely to open their door or go to the polling station. Yet we would expect campaigns to target them directly, given recent polls show that women are more likely to register “I don’t know” in relation to voting intentions, trust in the government and views on Brexit more generally. Despite a few token initiatives, there is little evidence of a concerted effort by any party to consider women’s interests in order to rally their votes. For example, a recent BBC report found that while campaign targeting on social media is deeply gendered (with, for example, Brexit Party promotions showing up disproportionately for men), there was no evidence of any party specifically seeking to target women voters.
The few nods there have been to women voters have proven problematic because they have instrumentalised as “feminist language” to achieve political goals. Jo Swinson’s #debateher campaign did it to push for her inclusion in the first televised election debate and in doing so sought to capture women voters. On Brexit more broadly, criticisms that the process of Brexit has largely marginalised women’s interests and voices have been addressed through initiatives such as Esther McVey’s ‘Ladies for Leave’ campaign, which launched in February 2019. Moreover, none of these campaigns have engaged issues related to Black and other ethnic minority women.
This narrow focus on “winning the women’s vote” relies on superficial analyses that treats women as a homogeneous group. It also makes a number of assumptions about the nature of political engagement, efficacy, and voter behaviour. Women have been the focus of the most analysis of the gender gap in politics. In this way, it is women whose political engagement and participation are called into question. Yet various forms of masculine behaviours are questionable, but remain unchecked.
A more nuanced assessment of the “consistency of the gender gap” in voting intention turns the question upside down, and in so doing challenges the way current debates reproduce a very narrow definition of citizenship and participation. Rather than fixating on women’s hesitancy to express a fixed view on high salience issues, it is perhaps more important to ask questions about agenda setting, interest representation and efficacy. What this means is to challenge the view that “making sense of politics” is easy and can be easily captured by soundbites. Such an analysis requires detailed reflection about the nature of the message, the way campaigns seek to seize elusive voters, and how this interacts with a complex web of socio-economic structures. To do anything less is to contribute to the growth in the “politics of bullshit” and the hollowing-out of political debate.
The media has also fallen short in the way it treats the significance of women voters. In the “urgency” of dealing with the political complexity of Brexit, commentators are only treating gender, and women voters and politicians, as contextual variables and backdrop to the power play currently dominating British politics. This underscores a deeper and more pervasive problem where the focus of the discussion is on how to maximise vote shares, rather than understanding women’s political engagement and activation.
The 2016 EU referendum was a critical juncture for British and EU politics and in many, and diverse ways, it has successfully activated a large section of the population. But it has not fostered higher levels of women’s political efficacy. The 2019 General Election is shaped by this backdrop. The conduct of political leaders, Theresa May’s ‘glass cliff’ moment in the summer of 2019 and women’s withdrawal from Westminster politics as a result of increased threats of violence all point of the crystallisation of a form of identity politics that helps to exclude traditionally under-represented groups from sites of power.
Brexit not only downgraded the importance of gender equality in the UK, a process that had already started with austerity, it entrenched the gendered and racialised nature of the British polity. Moving beyond a simplistic view of women voters requires an engagement with ongoing debates about gender, intersectionality and citizenship. Moreover, this process has also brought into question the idea of the EU as a gender actor – as the urgency of Brexit pushes all other issues to the sidelines, including equality in external and external affairs.
This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.
Roberta Guerrina is a Professor in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.
Toni Haastrup is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling.
Katharine Wright is a Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University.
Annick Masselot is a Professor at University of Canterbury Business & Law (New Zealand).