Nigel Farage's party is trying to navigate a sexual harassment scandal. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

They may have “a long history of chauvinism”, but Ukip is not the only party failing women

With a harassment scandal rumbling on, and its leader's breastfeeding comments, it's been a bad week for Ukip. But it's not the only party failing women.

Ukip has not had a good week when it comes to women. Nigel Farage kicked things off by suggesting that mothers should think twice about breastfeeding in public, managing to offend a rather large proportion of the population even by his standards.

Now a parliamentary candidate has accused Roger Bird, the party’s general secretary, of sexual harassment.

There is no denying that both of these incidents, and especially their close timing, are embarrassing for Ukip. They suggest that the party does indeed have what has been termed a “woman problem” and raise questions about why any woman would actually vote for them.

But while these stories clearly do not cast Ukip in a positive light, the party will weather this storm. After all, Ukip is hardly the only party that fails women voters.

Nick Clegg, for a start, might have tackled Ukip on the issue of women’s rights during the 2014 European election campaign but his own party is hardly a beacon of progress in this domain.

Not only do the Lib Dems risk losing their entire (tiny) cohort of women MPs at the next election, but the Chris Rennard scandal is clear proof that the party has a problem all of its own when it comes to representing the interests of women. Rennard stood accused of a variety of acts of sexual harassment, for which he refused to apologise and for which his short suspension was soon lifted. The message to women is that the Lib Dems effectively condone sexual harassment.

Then there are the Conservatives. Anyone who thinks they have no issues when it comes to women should listen again to the patronising comments made by senior Tories – including the infamous “calm down dear” incident featuring none other than party leader David Cameron. If that’s not enough, take a look at the dearth of women in the cabinet and a budget that has seen 72 per cent of cuts come out of the pockets of women voters.

If women voters want to abandon Ukip, they will have to travel a long way across the political spectrum to find a party that has not recently offered public displays of sexism.

Nothing new here

And in fact, it seems unlikely that any woman already voting for Ukip would switch on the basis of these latest slip ups. Ukip has a long history of chauvinism. Farage’s comments about breastfeeding in public saw him suggesting women should avoid being “ostentatious” about it and arguing that they make people feel “very embarrassed” and “very uncomfortable” if they don’t.

This discomfort with one of the most natural acts in the world suggests a man, and a party, that is ill at ease with women. The allegations about Bird only served to reinforce this image of a party that does not know how to treat women correctly and respectfully.

The party has long been against maternity leave and pay, and Farage himself has claimed that women are “worth far less” to employers in the financial sector. Meanwhile, Godfrey Bloom, Ukip MEP from 2004 to 2014, claimed that “no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of child-bearing age”. He later argued that small businesses should be allowed to sack pregnant women. If all this hasn’t been enough to turn off women voters before, these latest affronts are hardly going to be the final straw.

And it has worried less than most about appealing to women voters to maintain that credibility anyway. Women are already less likely than men to support Ukip. Research shows that, while the three mainstream parties all have a majority of women voters, Ukip’s electorate is 43 per cent women and 57 per cent men.

This is consistent with a widespread trend for radical right parties to have male-dominated support bases. The chauvinist discourses of the radical right are predominantly targeted at and appreciated by men. The women who do support parties such as Ukip tend to do so out of agreement with the party on other policy matters such as immigration.

Women who subscribe to radical right ideologies tend to hold traditional values and to reject feminism. As such, they are unlikely to abandon Ukip on the basis of some maladroit comments about breastfeeding or some as yet unconfirmed allegations of harassment.

Ukip has at least taken action over Bird, who has been suspended pending an investigation. This indicates that Ukip is taking a stronger line on sexism than it has in the past – perhaps out of a growing desire to be seen as a credible and electable party.

And that really is the only likely cost to the party after these incidents – the potential negative impact on its efforts to achieve mainstream respectability. The women who are left aghast by these stories are unlikely ever to have voted for Ukip in the first place.

For a party that found fame embracing nostalgia for the past, retrograde attitudes to women appear to be par for the course. The real disappointment here is that Ukip’s rivals are so poorly placed to offer a women-friendly alternative.

Rainbow Murray is a reader in politics at Queen Mary University of LondonThe Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496