UKIP has not had a good week when it comes to women. Nigel Farage kicked things off by suggesting that mothers should think twice about breastfeeding in public, managing to offend a rather large proportion of the population even by his standards.
Now a parliamentary candidate has accused Roger Bird, the party’s general secretary, of sexual harassment.
There is no denying that both of these incidents, and especially their close timing, are embarrassing for UKIP. They suggest that the party does indeed have what has been termed a “woman problem” and raise questions about why any woman would actually vote for them.
But while these stories clearly do not cast UKIP in a positive light, the party will weather this storm. After all, UKIP is hardly the only party that fails women voters.
Nick Clegg, for a start, might have tackled UKIP on the issue of women’s rights during the 2014 European election campaign but his own party is hardly a beacon of progress in this domain.
Not only do the Lib Dems risk losing their entire (tiny) cohort of women MPs at the next election, but the Chris Rennard scandal is clear proof that the party has a problem all of its own when it comes to representing the interests of women. Rennard stood accused of a variety of acts of sexual harassment, for which he refused to apologise and for which his short suspension was soon lifted. The message to women is that the Lib Dems effectively condone sexual harassment.
Then there are the Conservatives. Anyone who thinks they have no issues when it comes to women should listen again to the patronising comments made by senior Tories – including the infamous “calm down dear” incident featuring none other than party leader David Cameron. If that’s not enough, take a look at the dearth of women in the cabinet and a budget that has seen 72% of cuts come out of the pockets of women voters.
If women voters want to abandon UKIP, they will have to travel a long way across the political spectrum to find a party that has not recently offered public displays of sexism.
Nothing new here
And in fact, it seems unlikely that any woman already voting for UKIP would switch on the basis of these latest slip ups. UKIP has a long history of chauvinism. Farage’s comments about breastfeeding in public saw him suggesting women should avoid being “ostentatious” about it and arguing that they make people feel “very embarrassed” and “very uncomfortable” if they don’t.
This discomfort with one of the most natural acts in the world suggests a man, and a party, that is ill at ease with women. The allegations about Bird only served to reinforce this image of a party that does not know how to treat women correctly and respectfully.
The party has long been against maternity leave and pay, and Farage himself has claimed that women are “worth far less” to employers in the financial sector. Meanwhile, Godfrey Bloom, UKIP MEP from 2004 to 2014, claimed that “no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of child-bearing age”. He later argued that small businesses should be allowed to sack pregnant women. If all this hasn’t been enough to turn off women voters before, these latest affronts are hardly going to be the final straw.
And it has worried less than most about appealing to women voters to maintain that credibility anyway. Women are already less likely than men to support UKIP. Research shows that, while the three mainstream parties all have a majority of women voters, UKIP’s electorate is 43% women and 57% men.
This is consistent with a widespread trend for radical right parties to have male-dominated support bases. The chauvinist discourses of the radical right are predominantly targeted at and appreciated by men. The women who do support parties such as UKIP tend to do so out of agreement with the party on other policy matters such as immigration.
Women who subscribe to radical right ideologies tend to hold traditional values and to reject feminism. As such, they are unlikely to abandon UKIP on the basis of some maladroit comments about breastfeeding or some as yet unconfirmed allegations of harassment.
UKIP has at least taken action over Bird, who has been suspended pending an investigation. This indicates that UKIP is taking a stronger line on sexism than it has in the past – perhaps out of a growing desire to be seen as a credible and electable party.
And that really is the only likely cost to the party after these incidents – the potential negative impact on its efforts to achieve mainstream respectability. The women who are left aghast by these stories are unlikely ever to have voted for UKIP in the first place.
For a party that found fame embracing nostalgia for the past, retrograde attitudes to women appear to be par for the course. The real disappointment here is that UKIP’s rivals are so poorly placed to offer a women-friendly alternative.