What about the women?

It's now an established fact the female vote decides elections. Gordon needs more than a make-over:

Women are off politics, or at least politicians. No one really knows why, though it's not hard to think of quite a few good reasons. But the fact is that, when it comes to opining on Gordon Brown as the next prime minister, or David Cameron as the one after, a third of women invited to express their views say they don't know.

This might reflect a perfectly rational reluctance to sound certain when they aren't; even a quarter of men polled are prepared to admit that they have not made up their minds. But political strategists, like nature, abhor a vacuum, almost as much as they relish the chance of moulding a statistic to suit a particular purpose. And so, the women's vote is back in the frame.

Because politicians need women's votes: it is one of the triumphs of psephological analysis of the past ten years that it is now understood that women decide elections. The discovery that, without their tendency to back the status quo and vote Tory, there could have been non-stop Labour governments since 1945, and that only Tony Blair's seduction of the female vote in 1997 restored Labour to power, has played a big part in shaping the way politics has been played in the past decade.

Even in these past few months, when the Blairites were still casting about for an anyone-but-Gordon candidate, Brown's alleged lack of appeal to women was a key line of attack. That big clunking fist, which for a brief minute or two looked like a genuine Prime Minister's Questions endorsement - how quickly it became a double-edged sword. Women, gentle souls that we are, do not like big clunking fists.

Yet, in parallel with the slow, quiet transformation to a kind of feminised politics, the influence of women on political outcomes has been treated as a secret weapon. It has been anonymous, almost surreptitious. New Labour always found feminism, like anything else that might be described as a sectional interest, deeply worrying. Of course there was a lot of space for women in the big tent. Just not feminists. This was the terrible irony of that toe-curling image of the 1997 intake of power-dressed new Labour women MPs.

But it is a fact now universally acknowledged that Gordon Brown will not get his own mandate for No 10, and Labour cannot win a fourth general election, unless he wins the major share of the female vote. So the recent poll headlines declaring that women have lost faith in Blair and Labour are cause for alarm.

At the last general election, the gender gap appeared wider than ever. The switch-over from the deferential vote that typified older women to the differential vote of younger ones was confirmed. Women stayed markedly more loyal to Labour than men, but in the two years since, there has been a sharp decline. Forty per cent of women who voted in 2005 supported Labour. April's ICM poll for the Guardian showed that support among women had fallen to 29 per cent, and with Brown in charge it would fall further. Only 22 per cent of women would vote Labour if it meant getting Gordon Brown as prime minister. Young women in particular appear to be flirting with David Cameron's Conservatives.

Brilliant game

However, closer scrutiny of the polls shows that this is not the whole story. What they actually reveal is indecision, based on ignorance. It is a trend that has been evident at least since November, when Ipsos MORI, working with the Fawcett Society, observed a collapse in women's support, not for Brown but for Cameron, even sharper and faster than among men: an approval rating down from +13 among women in the first quarter of last year to +1 by the end of June.

Labour's feminists (and let's hear a particularly big hand for Harriet Harman) have played a brilliant game with the new gender sensitivity of the opinion polls. They need our votes, girls; what do we want from them? Male politicians finally had a reason they could understand for paying attention to an agenda that had been hived off to the women's conference. It has become received wisdom that a particular kind of leader, a particular style of politics, is more likely to attract women. Tony Blair's success was taken as proof that women liked consensual, big-tent politics, and confirmation that the tribalism of the previous 20 years had been an even bigger turn-off for women than for men.

It is the importance of female voters that has encouraged Conservative Central Office to portray David Cameron as their man in the Marigolds, an honorary sister with a working wife. It has even become an established fact that, far from women not supporting female candidates (which itself used to be another established fact particularly popular with male-dominated selection committees), women actually prefer female candidates. Analysing the 2005 vote, the Electoral Commission found that, where there were female candidates (of any party), women were much more likely to contribute to the campaign. Yet new Labour has never talked about feminism. Among the articles of faith junked by the Blairites back in the Nineties was that women might be won on issues that reflected women's experiences. Ideas such as domestic violence or rape or childcare - issues that were negatives among Labour's new middle-ground constituency hovering over the centre of the liberal-conservative continuum - became as unfashionable as shoulder pads and underarm hair.

Part of the explanation for this might have been a misreading of analysis of election results in the Eighties and early Nineties, which showed that the tendency for women to vote Conservative was fading. The gender gap seemed to have closed. But when the academics - particularly Pippa Norris, now at Harvard - started grinding away at the figures from the 1997 and then the 2001 votes, they suggested that the convergence theory was not quite what it seemed. The research that became received wisdom in the 1990s was reappraised. Now, all sorts of ideas are being re-examined, not necessarily for the purest of motives. After all, murmur the Brownites, if women prefer consensus and abhor confrontation, Margaret Thatcher's ability to attract and retain women's support becomes inexplicable.

It is easy to overstate the scale of the differential vote (and risk undermining the case for rethinking politics). One of the leading authorities is Rosie Campbell of Birkbeck College. She states baldly in her latest book: "There is no longer a significant gender gap and any reference to a 'women's vote' would be spurious." Happily she does not stop there. Although women and men do indeed vote in roughly equal numbers for the main parties, the reasons why they vote for the party of their choice are different.

Two factors are at work. In both the United States and Europe, there is now a body of evidence that suggests that once women have access to education and economic independence they move perceptibly to the left. This has nothing to do with the sexiness of the politicians. In fact, it is quite distinct from any personal appeal. It is simply that women under the age of 45 con sistently say that they believe in the role of the state to support its citizens. This is the generational gender gap, much more marked in the two-party politics of the US, where since 1980 women's preference for the Democrats has been repeated at every election.

In multiparty Britain, the picture is hazier. But Campbell's analysis of the 2001 and 2005 votes detects the same trend. What she has also done is pursue the question "why?". Using focus groups, she has developed a picture of the different ways in which women and men talk about politics, picking up on the tendency among women to talk in personal rather than abstract terms.

She has confirmed how much women's votes are influenced by the priority politicians give to issues that concern them, issues that are ranked in a different order from men's concerns. Education and (among older women) the NHS are more important to women than to men, and women support higher taxes for higher welfare spending in far greater numbers. Counter-intuitively, there is little evidence of a gender gap on the environment: this, as Cameron has spotted, is a youth issue. Women are less concerned than men about the economy, Europe or immigration. But - and this could worry Labour strategists - women, while ranking the economy as a lower priority than men do, are more pessimistic and anxious about it. Rising house prices and the return of inflation both seem more significant concerns to women than to men.

But perhaps Campbell's most important discovery is the link between being a mother of school-age children and a tendency to vote Labour. Using the British Social Attitudes survey, she has found that a middle-class, well-educated, well-paid woman working in the public sector with children under 11 is 70 per cent more likely to vote Labour than a similar man. Yummy mummies for Gordon? Well, maybe. The research is still in progress: but it indicates that, far from being less significant, gender - in a world of relative economic security, independence and growing gender equality - actually becomes more important in shaping women's voting choices than in an age when social pressures and religion shaped women's lives.

This new reading of the polling data might look dangerous for Gordon Brown. In fact, it is a gift. If the secret of the successful politician is to describe politics so that the voters can recognise their own concerns in the politician's agenda, it should not take a creative genius to describe Brown as the man with the answers for British women.

Yet it's easy to see how the idea that Brown doesn't appeal to women got about. He might still creep into the 100 sexiest men in Britain (at 97) but no one can argue that his political style is more masculine, more shaped by that combination of arrogant confidence and physical and intellectual muscle that is thought to repel women, than any other leading politician of the television era. Forget the tear in the eye during the TV interview when he was tackled about the death of his baby daughter, Jennifer; in politics, he is a man who seems never to have encountered his feminine side, let alone kept in touch with it. There may be two powerful women among his closest advisers in Sue Nye and Shriti Vadera, but the impression is of a bloke surrounded by blokes who likes, on the very rare occasions when he isn't doing blokey economics, doing blokey things such as watching football with blokes.

This sense of a divorce from the everyday is reinforced by the discreet distance his wife, Sarah, usually keeps from the political fray. (This is a no-win for the Brown family: a higher profile would no doubt be called exploitation.) Even without the helpful pointer from his former permanent secretary Lord Turnbull, his public image is controlling, even dominating. Few who saw it can forget the press conference where Estelle Morris was expressly asked a question about Labour and women, and Brown barged in just as she opened her mouth to answer. Lobbyists recall the hours of argument before he accepted that family tax credit should go to the carer rather than the wage earner, or that lone mothers were entitled to support if they wanted to return to work. "He seems to have no comprehension," one remarked after a recent seminar on parenting, "of the sheer messiness of many women's lives."

Can't change now

Social justice, Brown's overriding concern, means economic justice. To him, gender equality (and racial equality), surely vital aspects of social justice, are a matter of economics. He talks about women only when he also talks about men; he uses gender-neutral language such as "parents" when he could be selling his policies to women; and he talks about childcare, it sometimes seems, not because he understands how it can transform lives, but because it allows women to go to work and earn their way out of poverty. It sometimes seems that in his instrumentalism, we are all white men.

But, say despairing female friends and admirers, he can't change his image now, least of all when what he most needs to do is to distance himself from celebrity politics. It would lack credibility and undermine his strengths. So here is a re assuring message: he doesn't need to.

Somehow it is good to learn that it may not have been Tony Blair's smile, or his easy charm, that won women over to Labour in 1997: it was something that was happening anyway. Because younger female voters tend to be swayed not by material concerns but by values (a finding reinforced this month by a study of favoured graduate professions that showed women choosing Oxfam or public service over the City or industry), they are predisposed to support a progressive party. It doesn't matter - or not that much - that Brown's political style is the antithesis of what is thought to appeal to women. It is not style that matters, it's substance. He has to do one big thing. Even if he can't use the F word itself, he must abandon Labour's reluctance to talk the language of feminism.

It is hardly rocket science to argue that a party that wants to build its support among women should promote its record on gender issues. The only mystery is why, when he has such a good story to tell about funding for health and education, Sure Start and childcare, Gordon Brown still doesn't recognise the importance of telling it.

Oh, and it would certainly help if he had a woman deputy.

Labour's challenge

l19.5% of MPs are women

44% of women voted Labour in 1997

95 is the current number of Labour women MPs (after 1997 election it was 101)

17% is the differential between men's and women's hourly pay

57% women's retirement income as proportion of men's

10% of FTSE-100 directorships are held by women

Research by Jonathan Pearson

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger

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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

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After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

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The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater