Today the Guardian has published an article by Polly Toynbee entitled Millions of women fail to vote. Did the suffragists suffer in vain?.
I was surprised, because according to the British Election Study (BES), there is no meaningful gap between the genders when it comes to voter turnout – with 77% of men and 76% of women turning out to vote in the 2010 General Election.
The House of Commons Library data, cited by both Harriet Harman, Polly Toynbee and numerous media outlets, of ‘1 million missing women voters’ is taken directly from the BES data, but with artificial weighting added to make up for a potential gap between what people claim they have done with what they have actually done.
This is unvalidated data. Yes, there may be a gap between the numbers who say they vote and those that actually do, but to extrapolate from this unvalidated weighted data that there are ‘1 million missing women voters’ is careless at best.
There are a number of reasons I believe it is important to counter the idea that women are less likely to vote with the facts that we can verify. Whilst the Guardian may believe that they are encouraging female voters to get out on election day, the implication women aren’t voting could have a genuinely detrimental effect upon debates about real inequality of representation in British politics.
First, this form of disinformation is Christmas for those who wish to prove that conversations about gender inequality are built on quicksand. One of the statements of opposition to giving women the vote was that they wouldn’t use it, that women simply don’t care enough to vote. There is no proof that this is the case. Some women don’t vote, but nearly the same number of men don’t vote. It’s not a women’s issue, it’s a democracy issue.
Second, there are real reasons why women are less likely to become MPs, and we need a genuine debate about how to combat those if we want to create gender equality in our democracy.
For example, the ERS has published a fascinating study about the effect of first past the post voting systems on the gender make-up of parliament. The Labour Party, which runs all-women shortlists for Parliamentary candidates, has a higher proportion of female MPs than the other two main parties although, granted, it is still far from equal. In the recent French local elections, parties ran “binômes” – male/female paired candidates that ensured that all councils were 50% male and 50% female.
There are other issues: the incompatibility of family life and Parliament (including the additional pressure on women as parents); and the antisocial behaviour in the House of Commons are just two examples.
The answer to improved representation is not simple, it is a cultural, structural and political. All of these topics need to be debated, in the open, and solutions found. False claims that women do not vote allow those who would not want to tackle the issue of gender inequality in our system to claim that such work is unnecessary, because women are not interested in politics.