Will women decide whether Britain stays in the European Union (EU) or leaves? As the campaign enters the critical final months, with opinion polls showing a very tight race, which way women will vote has become an increasingly important issue. Could they be the all- important swing voters on whom the result depends?
Let’s start with the raw numbers. There are around a million more female voters than male voters. Women live longer lives on average than men and make up 52% of the electorate. More importantly, their longevity means that there are more women than men in the crucial ‘older voters’ category. Over-65s are a vital constituency because they are more likely to turn out to vote than young people: they were the age group with the highest turnout in the 2015 general election, when 78% of them voted compared to 43% of 18-24 year olds. Women make up nearly 56% of the over-65s electorate. Together with the fact that older voters tend to express more sceptical attitudes towards European integration, such figures might suggest that this important group of older women voters could tip the scales in favour of leaving the EU.
Yet that assumption is too quick. Women are in fact more likely to be undecided than men about the EU. In a February poll conducted by YouGov, 19% of women said they didn’t know whether Britain should remain or leave, compared to only 12% of men. Women have been consistently less likely than men to express a firm opinion on EU membership: whereas 43% of men say they have made up their minds about which way to vote in the referendum, this figure drops to 29% for women. The proportion of women saying they are not sure about EU membership has been consistently around a quarter for the last few years, and according to the latest ICM poll has not been affected by the start of the official referendum campaign. Although some commentators argue that this gender gap simply reflects women’s greater reluctance to state opinions, rather than the fact that they have not made up their minds, the poll findings fit other evidence which suggests that women are indeed less engaged with the EU and therefore less likely to be informed about its institutions and policies.
Deborah Mattinson of the public opinion organisation Britain Thinks argued earlier this year that it was surprising that campaigns had not yet targeted women voters. That has all changed recently with the formation of two opposing groups each aiming to persuade women to vote one way or another. The ‘Women In’ group, headed by business leaders and celebrities, was formed in January and focuses on economic issues, but has struggled to differentiate its programme from the mainstream ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ group, which begs the question why a separate group is needed. The pro-withdrawal campaign group ‘Women for Britain’, seeking to strike a patriotic chord, received more media interest with its launch on International Women’s Day by employment minister Priti Patel, but perhaps not for the reasons she intended, as her attempt to claim the suffragette heritage was quickly snubbed by feminists and the Pankhurst family. Meanwhile, the recent divisions within the Conservative party have brought Mrs Patel further into the limelight, pitting her against pro-EU education and equalities minister Nicky Morgan as rival potential leading figures in the party.
Appealing to women voters seems like a sensible strategy given the need to sway the ‘don’t knows’, since the gap between the ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ positions appears to have closed. But working out what will convince women voters is far from straightforward. Politicians’ attempts to engage women in the 2010 and 2015 general elections led to more emphasis on jobs, childcare and ‘family’ issues in party manifestos (1); in 2015, this may help to explain the reduction in the gap between the proportions of men and women voting, compared to previous elections. In other words, there is some evidence that focusing on women’s concerns has the desired effect of mobilising them to vote.
In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, too, both sides identified women voters as a target group for their campaigns as they were more likely to say they had not made up their minds than men (2). Women were thought less likely to vote for independence and their more cautious, economically-minded priorities featured heavily in the ‘no’ campaign. Just before the vote took place, polls suggested that the grassroots mobilisation of the ‘yes’ campaign, featuring female activists and highlighting Nicola Sturgeon’s new style of leadership, had succeeded in infusing the independence argument with a more positive message of renewal. In the end, though, only 43% of women supported independence, compared to 53% of men.
How all of this applies to the EU referendum is another matter. However, two consistent key features of women’s reported attitudes stand out as potentially relevant to the referendum campaign. The first relates to the bigger priority given by women (compared to men) to ‘bread-and-butter’ issues such as education and employment. In theory, therefore, focusing on the EU’s positive contribution to British jobs, and the concomitant risks of leaving, should help to persuade women to vote to remain. This is especially true as the arguments for withdrawal have hitherto tended to play on patriotic and anti-immigrant feelings which do not chime with women voters. This is why the Chancellor has repeatedly stressed in recent months the risks inherent in leaving the EU at a time of global economic uncertainty. Although weak growth in the Eurozone, and the widespread perception that is has not solved its structural problems, make it harder to sell the economic benefits of EU membership, the argument that leaving would present significant risks remains a potent one (it is also why the precipitous fall in the Chancellor’s personal ratings since the March Budget is problematic for the Remain campaign).
The second key feature is women’s distaste for the antagonistic style of politics typified by Prime Minister’s Question Time. Women do not like aggressive, partisan and polarising politics, which matters for the tone and conduct of the rival campaigns. Although the choice at the referendum is a binary one, and cannot be redefined in consensual terms, the messages and style of the campaigns will be important in determining how and whether women engage with the referendum debate. The fallout from the 2016 budget, and the febrile, often bitter, debate in the Conservative Party about its leadership, may not bode well for encouraging women to engage with the EU referendum campaign.
Most commentators agree that this campaign is not like any other and it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from the available polling evidence. One indication of how unpredictable attitudes on European integration have become is that young voters, who have shown a consistently large majority of support for EU membership, do not appear to be particularly engaged in the referendum campaign. Voters’ attitudes towards European integration don’t fall neatly into existing socio-economic cleavages; rather, they cut across economic and cultural divisions. So although younger voters are more cosmopolitan and liberal in their attitudes, they have in years begun to show political attitudes that reveal anxieties about their economic future. Similarly, university graduates, Labour supporters and voters in higher income groups are more strongly pro-European, and have higher turnout rates than unskilled and lower income groups.
All of this underlines the real sense that both campaigns have a lot to play for in aiming their campaigns towards the large number of wavering or as-yet-undecided voters. Women make up the majority of these people. They could yet decide whether Britain stays or goes.
This blog post is part of a new IPR Series – all related to the BREXIT debate and the EU Referendum. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in May 2016. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.
(1) See Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs (2015) All aboard the pink battle bus? Women voters, women's issues, candidates and party leaders. Parliamentary Affairs, 68/1 (supplement: Britain Votes): 206-223.
(2) See Meryl Kenny (2014) Engendering the independence debate. Scottish Affairs, 23 (3): 323-331.