Women-dominated EU debate a welcome break from Tory boys’ brigade

Nicola Sturgeon led attacks against Boris Johnson. MATT FROST/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Much of the coverage of the EU referendum campaign so far has been like reporting on the common room squabbles of a boys’ school. So it was a welcome relief when ITV’s EU referendum debate on June 9 offered a sharp rejoinder to the overwhelmingly male-dominated campaign.

ITV’s fielding of five women and one man was a significant attempt to challenge the dominance of male voices ahead of the critical vote on the UK’s EU membership on June 23.

Analysis of the media coverage of the EU referendum conducted by my colleagues and I shows the marked extent to which women have been marginal so far, accounting for just 18% of those quoted by the media about the campaign.

The Remain campaign fielded an all-female line-up with Labour shadow business secretary Angela Eagle, Conservative energy secretary Amber Rudd and Scotland’s SNP first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. The pro-Brexit Leave camp was represented by the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, his fellow Conservative energy minister Andrea Ladsom, and Labour’s Gisela Stuart.

The encounter was anticipated by commentators as an antidote to the male-dominated debate and a deliberate attempt to neutralise Johnson and, in doing so, to appeal to women voters.

Team dynamics

Remainers Sturgeon and Eagle both successfully advocated their own party’s agendas during the debate. Eagle strongly defended workers’ protections offered by the EU, such as the limit on working hours, right to paid maternity leave and holiday pay. Sturgeon sought to play up the idea of the EU as a community as well as a market, and was the only campaigner to explicitly champion the benefits of immigration.

Viewers might have been forgiven for not knowing which party Gisela Stuart represents in parliament, as she seemed content to stick to the centre-right agenda of the economy and immigration that has dominated coverage of the referendum. This perception was reinforced when Eagle criticised Stuart for being prepared to risk manufacturing jobs by advocating leaving the EU.

For their part, the Leave campaigners appeared to be much more coordinated. They were seen conferring with one another more than once and all of them frequently repeated the phrase “take back control” – the campaign mantra.

There was plenty of animosity between the two sides. Sturgeon, Eagle and Rudd all directed personal attacks on Johnson’s credibility, integrity and his track record, with Sturgeon branding a potential Prime Minister Johnson as a “pretty horrifying prospect”. He responded by accusing the Scottish first minister of negative campaigning, and contradicting her commitment to making a positive case for remaining in the EU.

Appealing to women

One direct question from the audience asked the panel whether women and workers would generally be better off inside or outside the EU. Unfortunately, this led to a largely superficial engagement with the question. All the participants were at pains to affirm their commitment to equal rights, but it was the sole man on the platform who had the most to prove.

Stuart, Leadsom and Rudd asserted throughout that they were speaking “as a mother” – a naked attempt to show empathy with women viewers. But this can be a risky strategy for female politicians to adopt as drawing attention to gender can reinforce stereotypes.

Although the debate was a welcome interruption to the male-dominated discussion we have witnessed so far, it is possible that by not including other men on the platform, it will be remembered for the number of personalised attacks on Johnson rather than really breaking the monopoly that Tory men have on the campaign.

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