#Brexit: Why It All Hangs On The Female Vote

June Sarpong

by Anushka Asthana |
Published on

With a date now set for an EU referendum, prepare to be wooed hard by the two camps, says The Guardian’s new political editor, Anushka Asthana...

What happens when when you take a group of older, white men and ask them to shout at each other? It seems you get Britain’s European Union debate.

Just look at the key personalities. There’s Dave and Boris. George and Michael. Alan, who agrees with Nick. Iain who does not. And at least two Nigels. Which all feels like a bit of a man-fest.

But I believe this election could be decided by women. Why? Because it all hangs on the third of Britons yet to make up their minds. And most of them (up to 60%, according to polls) are female. Both camps know how crucial these voters will be and that is why the battle is shifting to try to win them over.

The campaign to stay part of the EU has launched its own network called ‘Women IN’ – which promises a different referendum in which women’s voices are ‘front and centre’ of the debate. It began with an open letter in London’s Evening Standard signed by more than 50 leading women in business, science, trade unions and medicine. So there are female voices in the mix (albeit not as dominant as

the men). And among the highest-profile campaigners are June Sarpong, Karren Brady and Martha Lane Fox.

They are trying to persuade women by focusing on the broad issues of the economy, trade agreements and global influence. But they are also gunning for votes by arguing that the EU has made Britain a more equal place, with guaranteed maternity rights, laws around equal pay and anti-discrimination. The belief is that female voters are more nervous about change that might negatively impact their families – or, in particular, the future of their children. If they’re right, claims that Brexit could mean more expensive flights, steeper energy bills, or shakier job security (the part of the campaign that outers have branded ‘Project Fear’) could resonate more loudly with women.

Lucy Thomas, deputy director of Britain Stronger in Europe, rejects the Project Fear tag. She says that spelling out the risks is ‘Project Reality’, arguing that it would be irresponsible not to warn of what might happen in the case of Brexit. Thomas knows that women could be the key for her side – because they are still open to persuasion, and their starting point tends to be less staunchly Eurosceptic than men.

Looking at 2014’s Scottish referendum, she could well be right. Polling by Lord Ashcroft after the vote suggested the ‘no’ campaign had a much heftier lead among women than men. Highlighting the

risks did appear to persuade more female Scottish voters to stick with the status quo.

Vote Leave spokesman Paul Stephenson knows that his side faces the same challenge now. He thinks women are – on average – a more ‘cautious’ group of voters. ‘They are more likely to respond to Project Fear,’ he says. This is particularly worrying for his camp, because he agrees that the high number of female voters who are ‘don’t knows’ means that women could prove decisive. So what’s his plan?

Stephenson argues that outers will have to neutralise the warnings from the ‘in’ campaign – hence accusing those who are in favour of remaining in the EU of scaremongering, and repeatedly branding their campaign as Project Fear. They also want to assuage women’s concerns. They say the messaging that has most impact on women voters is around cost and the NHS. That is why outers often stress that £350m a week goes on the EU, which could instead be spent on British priorities like healthcare. Stephenson wants to change the balance so voters think that the status quo actually represents the riskier option. But he also admits that the whole debate needs to feel less blokey. The out campaign will proudly use Cabinet minister Priti Patel. And there are plans to take on the ‘in’ campaign’s drive for female voters with the ‘out’ campaign’s own ‘Women for Britain’ group.

Let’s just hope the growing number of female advocates on both sides will soon stop being drowned out by the cacophony of men.

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