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#Labourlosingwomen, #libdemslosingwomen, #WomenWontWheesht, #SNPleftme. If you are a frequent user of political Twitter, you will have seen one or more of these hashtags. The women who use such hashtags often add another: #politicallyhomeless.
Mumsnet and the politically homeless
The term ‘politically homeless’ also occurs at a high rate in another context where women debate political matters: the UK parenting forum Mumsnet. The website celebrated its twentieth anniversary last year and is well known as a place where politicians woo women voters – the 2010 general election was often referred to as ‘the Mumsnet election’ in recognition of the many webchats held on the site that featured party leaders.
When politicians queued up to try to persuade Mumsnetters to vote for them in 2010, there was no mention of political homelessness amongst the women who debated and argued with politicians such as David Cameron, Michael Gove and Gordon Brown. The site’s talk boards between 2010 to 2017 show no use at all of the phrase. However, since 2017, there have been over 100 separate Mumsnet discussion threads where women have declared themselves to be ‘politically homeless’.
Main drivers of political homelessness
An analysis of these threads – some of which stretch to the full 1000-post limit allowed on Mumsnet – identifies three main drivers behind such statements: Brexit, allegations of Labour Party anti-Semitism, and current plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).
It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Mumsnetters who voted for Remain who identify as ‘politically homeless’ in relation to Brexit. This particular type of homelessness is the only one that stretches the gamut of political opinion on the site, from left to right. Brexit as a reason for political homelessness tended to be mentioned in 2018 and 2019, but has been mentioned less frequently recently, perhaps reflecting the national mood.
Suggestions that anti-Semitism could be found in parts of the Labour party concerned those who identified themselves as (ex-)Labour voters, but mention of this as a reason for political homelessness became less frequent once Sir Keir Starmer took charge of the party.
However, it is the third driver – concern about political parties’ policies in relation to the GRA, and in particular the possible introduction of self-identification as a way of acquiring a Gender Recognition Certificate, that has remained a key concern on the site, mentioned throughout the period analysed, and by users who identify themselves as former voters for a whole tranche of left and left-of-centre parties.
The Gender Recognition Act
GRA reform was a particular issue on Mumsnet during the General Elections of 2017 and 2019, and is once again trending with the upcoming Scottish Parliament elections this May. Women are of course not alone in feeling politically homeless – a 2017 survey by the National Centre for Social Research found that over half of the British public (56 per cent) say that they do not feel any of the political parties represent the views of people like them.
Concerns about Brexit and the Labour party are not single-sex issues, and many male voters will have found themselves with similar feelings – as Matt Forde’s book Politically Homeless, published in 2020, makes clear. But the political homelessness discussed on Mumsnet centres around women’s unhappiness with policies that will introduce gender self-identification with what they consider to be little consideration of how that might impact on women’s rights.
In recent years, Mumsnet has developed a reputation as either a bastion of free speech for allowing discussion of this topic or a transphobic cesspit, depending on the writer’s opinions on the issue. The potential impact of changes to the GRA on women’s rights have dominated discussion on the site’s Feminism talk boards, and Mumsnet has become one of the only online spaces to allow extended debate on the subject. This has led to a 12-fold increase in the number of people accessing the site directly via the Feminist Chat topic. However, Mumsnet’s policy of allowing such discussion has also led to criticism, law-suits and a series of coordinated campaigns to persuade companies to stop advertising on the site.
Alienating female voters?
The majority of left and centre-left parties in the UK have now adopted reform of the GRA as party policy, including the SNP since gender recognition is a devolved matter. It is clear that the adoption of such policies has alienated some voters. Several posters on Mumsnet state that they are now unable to vote for their party of choice. Some contemplated voting for the Conservatives when the party backed away from its own plans to reform the GRA in early 2019. Some made voting decisions based on individual candidates’ explicit support for or against GRA reform. But others state that their intention is to not vote at all or to spoil their ballots in protest – during the general election of 2019 there were several threads where posters claimed to have done just that.
It might be noted that, whereas turnout in the previous two general elections had been roughly equal between men and women, in 2019 only 59 per cent of women eligible to vote turned out, in comparison to 63 per cent per cent of men. In addition, the media reported stories across the country concerning rising numbers of spoiled ballots that year. While the media focused on the confusion of Brexit as an explanation for this phenomenon, social media discussion also pinpointed women’s anger around GRA reform plans.
Unofficial women’s groups within political parties
One response to women’s concerns about their parties’ adoption of policies around reform of the GRA has been the formation of unofficial women’s groups within political parties. These include the SNP Women’s Pledge, Conservative Women’s Pledge and Labour Women’s Declaration. However, membership of such groups can lead to the identification of women who disagree with party leaderships, and even demands for signatories to be thrown out of the party.
In February, 120 members of the SNP Women’s Pledge group wrote to Nicola Sturgeon asking that she deliver a condemnation of threats of violence made against SNP MP Joanna Cherry and “reassure women who have left the party, or who are thinking of leaving the party, due to the distressing, hostile and unjust environment women are facing, that you hear them, that you value them, and that you are taking action to support them.” In response a SNP spokesperson stated, “The First Minister has spoken before about the abuse she receives on a daily basis, and the way in which such abuse can put young women off politics.”
While the Conservative government in Westminster has kicked its plans for reform of the GRA into the long grass, the SNP government in Holyrood has declared its determination to achieve this policy as soon as possible.
However, this May’s Scottish elections offer disgruntled women the option of voting for a party that pledges to resist the GRA; the new Independence for Scotland Party (ISP) is fielding candidates for the regional list in May. The ISP explicitly opposes self-identification plans for trans people and aims to attract female voters concerned about the SNP’s plans for the new parliament.
It will be interesting to see whether new parties such as the ISP, operating in an electoral system that is not first-past-the-post and focused on people’s second, regional, vote, offer a new home for those women who identify as ‘politically homeless’.