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Home Opinion Social democracy and the unfinished gender revolution
Women • Vote • Social Democracy

Social democracy and the unfinished gender revolution

Michael McTernan - 12 June 2014

The leftward drift of the female vote is not a guaranteed win for social democracy. But if policy is targeted effectively, long term political, economic and social benefits are likely to follow

The modern gender voting gap refers to the moving preferences of female voters as society changes. A detailed study of the 2008 European Values survey indicates that in most European countries, women in comparison to men lean more to the left in their voting decisions. It is found that in 18 out of 25 European countries, women tend to vote more to the left than to the right (with the gap growing in many places).  The countries where a majority of women still tend to prefer right-wing parties are largely post-communist countries like Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Hungary. Ireland is the outlier in western Europe.

Indeed, further studies support this finding that women lie significantly to the left on a wide range of socio-economic issues: inequality; government responsibility for employment creation; childcare provision; provision for the old; job-sharing policies, and healthcare.

This is good news on multiple fronts for Europe’s centre-left parties as they struggle to build durable political coalitions in the post-crisis era. There are, however, a number of caveats to the leftward drift of the female vote.

Firstly, women might be more likely to vote on the left of the political spectrum; but this does not mean they will vote for mainstream centre-left parties.  Left-wing populists and lifestyle parties such as Greens and Feminists are increasingly active competitors, especially in competition for young female voters.

In the recent EU election in Sweden, the Social Democrats (SAP) lost a combined 27% of the centre-left vote to the Greens, Left party and a new Feminist Initiative party. In Ireland, exit polls suggest that the success of the nationalist Sinn Fein party, which ran on an anti-austerity platform, was aided by increasing its share of the female vote, who largely supported a ‘new force’ in Irish politics outside of the traditional parties. And in Spain and Greece, the radical left-wing parties Podemos and Syriza tap into the support of women’s movements.

Secondly, the findings of the pre-crisis 2008 study mentioned above suggest that in countries where women take an active part in the labour market (either full time or part time), they are also more likely to support leftist parties. However, they also indicate that left-wing preferences might be reduced as soon as women experience labour market inequalities (thus they might turn to the right).  This has obvious implications in the context of disproportionately higher levels of unemployment during the crisis and the prevailing burdens of underemployment, gender segregated workforces and often limited state childcare provision which prohibit women’s full participation in the labour market.

Thirdly, and following on from the last point, centre-right parties will get increasingly adept at presenting themselves as ‘female friendly parties’ and ‘progressive’ conservatives. As Patrick Emmenegger and Philip Manow have noted, Christian Democrat parties in the past could take their large pools of female votes for granted, but with the decline of religiosity, modernisation and increasing female labour market participation, they are now realising that they have to compete more on socio-economic policy with social democratic parties to stop the leftward drift of female voters.

This was evident at the last year’s German federal elections with Angela Merkel’s emphasis on family policy and childcare. She won 41.5% of the vote, finishing just five seats short of an unprecedented absolute majority, while the centre-left SPD languished on 25.7%. In the past, women used to be a bastion for the German Social Democrats. But Merkel’s CDU is now the number one women's party in the country. 44 percent of women chose the CDU, only 39 percent of men.

In the UK, it has generally been accepted that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have struggled desperately to agree on a legislative programme for their final term: but the Conservatives were pleased to agree to reach-out socio-economically to women and give £2,000 childcare help for working parents. The opposition Labour party was opening a significant polling gap in the female vote.  

Fourthly, the transition from industrial to service-based economies has offered a substantial opportunity to increase women’s participation in the labour market. 75% of employment in the OECD countries is now in services and job growth is occurring in service-orientated sectors. As Anne Wren of Trinity College Dublin documents, the breakdown of the industrial male-bread winner model has strongly boosted women’s labour market participation (See graph).


As Wren highlighted at a recent Policy Network and Renewal Journal seminar, this has been very beneficial for a range of economic, social and political reasons. But she also warns that whilst women voters might potentially move more to the left in the service economy, support among high-skilled workers for centre-left parties might decline as the stronger winds of global competition start to bite.

In other words, voters in the dynamic tradable services sector ‒ such as business consultancy, finance and communications ‒ may shift away from voting for centre-left parties. Technological and communication advancements, alongside emerging economies moving up the value chain mean that global competition is stiffening. Evidence from Brian Bell and Steve Machin in the UK also highlights that high-skilled, and once solidly middle class occupations such as teaching, life sciences, engineers and accountants, although still relatively well-paid, are showing a clear decline in their wage premiums over time.

The implication and worry is that because of their concerns over economic competitiveness and income shares, these groups of voters become more wary of taxation and redistribution  ̶  and thus more likely to switch political allegiances to the right. But centre-left parties need them as voters to build majoritarian coalitions – and need them as tax payers and wealth creators to fund the social investment, social democratic state. Revenues are needed to retain high employment in public services and offer support for low pay jobs in the non-dynamic service sectors.

But such a scenario is by no means a foregone conclusion. The picture painted by Wren rather serves as a warning signal to policymakers of the delicate and strong leadership required to build winning centre-left coalitions in open economies.

The wider point is the importance on many fronts of investing in female labour and supporting women in the work place.

Economically, future growth and economic competitiveness will come in large part through getting women back to work. Furthermore, while innovation policies and a thriving dynamic traded sector is needed to secure the future tax base, the sustainability and affordability of the welfare state can also be improved by fostering the growth of better paid (female) jobs in the labour-absorbing service sectors like health, care of the elderly and education (See Wendy Carlin on a progressive economic strategy).

Socially, by adopting policies which move social services away from male breadwinner frames as well as improving public welfare institutions and care services, centre-left parties can tackle gender inequalities, such as the ‘motherhood pay penalty’, disproportionate labour market vulnerability and pay discrimination experienced by women.

And politically, the modern gender voting gap suggests that value shifts in European societies will continue to grow, benefiting social democrats if the right social and economic policies are adopted. The challenge is to make the case for social investment and prioritisation in a political and fiscal climate which is defined by scarcity and a fear of falling. It is likely to pay out big dividends in the long-term.

Michael McTernan is acting director of Policy Network

See “Making Progressive Politics Work” for a collection of related policy proposals and ideas.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Opinion , Gender , Electoral politics , Democracy , Election , Vote , Voting , Equality , Equity , Fairness , Gender Voting Gap , Economy , Centre-left , Centre-right , Left , Right ,

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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