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7 March 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 4:59pm

Why women leave political parties

The class and age of men and women in political parties is virtually identical. The reason they quit is not. 

By Monica Poletti

More men than women join political parties. And new research from the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (PMP) conducted by the Queen Mary University of London, and Sussex University suggests that even when women do join, they think and act a little differently from their male counterparts. Even when it comes to why people leave parties – something that’s not at all uncommon – there are interesting gender differences.

Not all parties are the same, of course. Anyone familiar with the PMP’s recent Grassroots report will have noticed that while around six out of ten UK party members are male, there are big differences between, say, Labour, where the gender balance is 53:47 and the Tories, where it’s 71:29.

The differences between men and women who join the nation’s six biggest parties – Labour, the Scottish National Party, the Lib Dems, the Tories, Greens and Ukip – might not be so glaring (and when it comes to age and class, incidentally, they are virtually invisible) but they may well be significant.

Female party members tend to lean a little to the left of their male counterparts. They are also, in general, more socially liberal and keen to see a more diverse bunch of people elected to parliament – although this is less the case in the Conservative party, possibly because of age differences.

Probably because they’re under greater time-pressure, female party members, when compared to male members anyway, tend to prefer online to offline campaign activities. They’re Facebookers rather than door-knockers. 

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That might end up being more significant than it appears at first glance. After all, would-be candidates use their door-knocking tallies to prove their commitment and campaign skills to selection committees. Women may therefore be at a disadvantage, even if they do see party membership as the first step to a career in politics.

Interestingly, but perhaps depressingly, the project’s research suggests that those career expectations and aspirations are in any case more common among the men who join parties than they are among the women. Generally, though, both men and women join parties primarily because they want to promote their policies and ideas (and resist those put forward by their opponents).

Given the role principles pay in recruitment, it’s interesting in terms of retention that the research shows that female party members seem better able than men to tolerate conflict and disagreement with the direction their party is taking. When we look at the reasons given by members who leave, men are more likely to storm (or should that be flounce?) out on that score. Women, though, are more cost-conscious than men. Only one in ten men cited the need to save money as a reason for leaving, whereas it was a factor for a quarter of women.

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What all this says about gender differences and how parties can best navigate and overcome them, we’ll leave to readers – and the parties themselves – to ponder.