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Pathfinders: The Activism Gap

Given that women are not especially rare in the general UK population, why are there not more of them in the Socialist Party? Is this a specific failing on our part, or more of a general trend? If it’s a trend, what other trends are there, and what changes are taking place?

There are, to be sure, various ‘activism gaps’. Young people are in general less politically engaged than older people, black and minority ethnic (BME) groups less than whites, and indeed the party spectrum itself divides somewhat along income and education lines, from high-end active association with the Tories, Lib Dems and Greens to low-end activity (or former activity) in Ukip, with Labour pertly straddling the higher and middle strata.

A recent House of Commons research paper looking at UK political party membership sets all this in sobering context. Overall, levels of engagement in any kind of activism are low. Around 26 percent are involved in some kind of sporting or cultural activity, 12 percent in religious or volunteering pursuits, and just one percent in any form of politics (House of Commons Briefing Paper Number SN05125, 28 March 2017).

The report notes the late increase in political interest among young people, from 32 percent in 2015 to 48 percent in 2016, underscoring a similar rise among the general white population from 51 to 60 percent, while observing that interest among BME groups has remained static at 35 percent. But there’s a big difference between labour-intensive political activism and instant, cost-free political voting, and here’s where the activism gap becomes obvious: “The largest disparity between the social make up of party members and electors is for gender. While 50.1% of electors were male, 67.2% of party members were men.”

This echoes the findings of an April 2004 Electoral Commission (EC) report which stated: 'Women are significantly less likely than men to participate in campaign-orientated activities, such as contacting a politician and donating money to, working for, or being a member of, a political party. Women are also less likely than men to join voluntary organisations. Overall, a statistically significant activism gap by gender exists in the UK' 123235687 (123235687 tinyurl.com/orjweuu123235687 ).

While today the female vote is roughly proportional to the male vote it wasn’t always so, and studies in the 1920s when women were able to vote showed that in practice they often chose not to. A 1960s study found that /In all societies for which we have data, sex is related to political activity; men are more active than women' (EC 2004).

It would be remiss not to ask the awkward question whether some form of historical or biological determinism is at work. First, could it be that the historical subjection of the female sex through recorded history has left an indelible mark whereby women now collude in their own political exclusion? To some extent expectations play a part. The Electoral Commission suggests that ‘women have a weaker sense of political efficacy than men; they have lower confidence that they can influence the political process’. But expectations change. Given the speed at which recent history has put up or taken down regimes and behaviours in just a few years or even weeks, it’s hard to picture women in liberal democracies wallowing in a continued sense of impotence just because it was historically so.

History is in any case not written into the genes, but what about prehistory? Could there be a deeper genetic legacy from the earliest times when pre-humans first invented the sexual division of labour (SDL) for purposes of mutual convenience? The classical argument is that women, having far greater investment and risk in child breeding, would choose to exert their social control there, while men, being largely untaxed by the process and anyway uncertain of their paternal credentials, would have looked elsewhere for theirs. This ‘classical SDL’ theory, once favoured by Engels and popular among socialists including William Morris, maintained that SDL was cooperative and not intrinsically oppressive or unequal until the arrival of property society made it so. However SDL is now thought to be modern, not ancient. Kuhn and Stiner, 2006, suggest that SDL emerged as late as the Mid-Palaeolithic, from 250-30,000 years ago, giving homo sapiens a survival advantage over the (probably) non-specialising Neanderthals then dominating Eurasia, and moreover this would have happened mostly in the ecologically-diverse tropics rather than in northerly latitudes. In some tribes, females hunted and men gathered (https://tinyurl.com/y97skyeg). So the thinking in anthropology circles has moved away from ‘men and women are different, and that’s ok’ to ‘men and women are the same, and that’s ok!’

But still, discounting deterministic causes, women are not standing up for political change as much as men, and this remains a mystery. The self-disabling ‘too busy at home’ argument is largely a myth today, with 40 percent of women in the workplace and outnumbering men in unions. The Electoral Commission report identifies other factors, like ‘self-relevance’ and gender representation. Asked whether they agreed with the statement ‘Government benefits people like me’, women with a local female MP agreed more than men (49 percent to 38), and the reverse was true for seats with a male MP. Some studies in the US support this finding, others flatly contradict it. A 2011 review argues that knowledge is key: “At lower levels of political knowledge, women’s lower political knowledge depresses their participation in politics. The participation gap disappears at higher levels. These findings complement existing scholarship that finds women hold themselves to a higher standard before engaging in political activities such as running for elected office (Social Science Quarterly, 26 July 2011). In other words, men rush in where women fear to tread.

What could we do to address this activism gap? The EC report suggests ‘support systems’, while some on the left advocate ‘special mechanisms’ (e.g. Lyndsey German, 2006, isj.org.uk/theories-of-patriarchy). Such notions of positive discrimination run the risk of patronisingly perpetuating what they set out to solve. But we could do more ourselves, first to emphasise female ‘efficacy’ in our uniquely open democracy, and by offering more members something to do at the outset. Members could write more articles geared towards women and BME groups. Considering that a quarter of the population likes cultural activities, we could provide more social events. And we could construct a ‘Teach Yourself Socialism’ A-Z Wiki on our website to systematise what is currently a rather random DIY approach to learning. Such efforts may not close the gap, but they could help to narrow it.

PJS