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

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars