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Andrea Leadsom MP: Three ideas to improve Tory support amongst Britain's women

Leadsom Andrea

 Andrea Leadsom is MP for South Northamptonshire. Follow Andrea on Twitter.

Andrea's talk was given to ConservativeHome's Victory 2015 Conference, on 9th March. Read the contributions from Rob Halfon on blue collar conservatism and John Stevenson on winning in the North.

Research by the Electoral Commission into the 2001 general election confirmed that where there’s a woman candidate the turnout among women was 4% higher.

Let’s just think about that for a second.

It’s such a compelling argument for more female candidates that party strategists need almost look no further.

At the ConservativeHome conference on Saturday, my friend Amber Rudd MP, Tom Mludzinski, an IPSOS MORI analyst and I had the pleasure of talking to party activists about how to win the women’s vote.  Tom started off explaining that one of the key differences between men and women’s approach to politics is that men look at the strategy and the tactics whereas women engage with the issues and the fundraising. So all you 'strategic' men out there - if you want a 4% higher turnout amongst women (which is a roughly 2% higher turnout overall) then SELECT FEMALE CANDIDATES!

David Cameron knew about this killer fact when he decided to develop the 'A list' and the experience of three years shows that whilst we may be only 48 in number, the women MPs are definitely making their presence felt.

So whilst electing female candidates should be a strategic target, so too should be making sure we are giving an empathetic response to the issues that concern women. And here, Tom was also very interesting, pointing out that the economy and jobs are a priority for both women and men, but beneath that, women have much greater interest in issues which are more family centred: health, education, childcare and social care to name a few.

We already have excellent policies that address some of the long running difficulties that women worry about, but too often we don’t talk openly enough about them… A few months back we had a superb debate in the Chamber on mental health – the press gallery was almost empty, but that debate has sparked real hope among those who tirelessly work to resolve mental health issues that perhaps, at last, politicians are listening.

So the language we use, the debates we hold, and the way in which we address difficult issues like cuts in benefits and reform of care for the disabled do, I believe, make a huge difference to our appeal to women voters. Putting more women MPs forward to explain the compassionate reasons for reform instead of male MPs explaining the need for deficit reduction is an important focus for thought.

Conservative Party policies demonstrate a clear understanding of what it’s like to be a woman in Britain today – we have higher female employment than ever, higher childcare costs than ever, higher rates of family breakdown than ever, higher obesity and self image problems than ever, and the almost invisible scourge of domestic violence that affects 1 in 4 women in Britain.  I'm proud that the Party has made great efforts to profoundly reconsider government policy to meet today's needs, but there’s more that could be done and I want to focus on just four particular areas that are of great personal interest to me:

The first is our policy around motherhood. As a mum of three myself I still remember the shock of the huge responsibility of becoming a mother for the first time and I know that there is huge potential to radically rethink our strategy towards the perinatal period.

Post natal depression affects up to 1 in 5 women and yet whilst we have excellent ante natal care and significant improvements in health visiting numbers, still we don’t have a real focus on supporting the earliest relationship between mum and baby. There is so much more we could do to get children’s centres to focus their activities on the conception to 2 period and helping health visitors and midwives to join together with family centre workers in supporting secure early attachment.

So many of Britain’s problems - poor mental health, relationship breakdown, and even violence, substance misuse and homelessness stem from poor early attachment between parent and baby. The advances in neuroscience, looking at how babies' brains develop, backs up what so many families have experienced. So a radical new approach to combining Department of Education, Department of Health and local government in coming up with a new proposition for the perinatal period would be my first specific proposal to win the women’s vote.

Secondly, childcare and school. This is in the top tier of issues that women worry about and Liz Truss MP’s reforms to professionalise the early years workforce will go a huge way towards giving families greater confidence in the quality of care for their treasured children.

Introducing child minding agencies will also, I hope, encourage new child minders to start up and reverse the years of decline in numbers that took place under Labour. But as well as the guaranteed childcare for 2 year olds, I think the government should be focusing on the need for greater empathetic care for the under 2’s, introducing training for all nursery workers in the importance of secure early relationships and how a baby’s brain develops would, I believe, radically change many of the protocols in nurseries that can sadly work against the secure emotional development of very young children. So my second proposal is to build on the strong new policies for childcare by developing a new focus on the emotional needs of the infant and young child.

My first two policy proposals would truly enable children to rise to the challenge of the new academic rigour that Michael Gove is bringing into the school system. Michael's educational reforms will radically transform the quality of our children’s education but don’t tackle the huge issue of how to help families to manage their work commitments alongside their children’s education.

Schools often have first rate facilities – sports pitches, computer suits, libraries, language theatres, music rooms etc and yet they are often extremely under utilised. Many schools are locked up by 4pm each day, for the entire weekend and for 12 holiday weeks a year. Parents, on the other hand, are struggling to juggle long school holidays (the 6 week summer holiday was originally introduced to enable children to help their parents bring in the harvest!).

So my third proposal is that we should explore ways to properly use schools – that instead of being optional as they are now, breakfast and after school clubs should become the norm, and different activities, including remedial lessons, should be available during the holidays. I’m certainly not saying either that teachers, who have long and stressful hours already, should simply work more; the extra curricular clubs and activities could be arranged by external providers on a pay-as-you-go basis. Alternatively in urban areas an even more radical approach would be to have a school that runs 360 days a year with a ‘super-head’ and two sets of pupils as well as two sets of teachers, making full use of the budget of two schools!

The final proposal I want to make is one that Claire Perry MP together with a strongly supportive group of Colleagues has been campaigning for since May 2010. And that is for a meaningful block for the ‘wild west’ that the internet has become.

Internet porn is beginning to have an identifiable impact on the attitudes of children and young people to sex and relationships. Children as young as 11 are copying the degrading sexual activity that they’ve seen online. But it’s not only porn that is a great concern to parents, particularly mum’s. Suicide websites, anorexia websites and terrorism websites are all freely accessible either by accident or deliberately, so my fourth policy proposal is to see ISPs, either willingly or by statute, to develop an ‘opt-in’ style of broadband provision, where adults can choose to opt-in to particular categories of website instead of the current arrangement whereby parents who often have limited time and knowledge are required to figure out how to 'opt-out' if they want to protect their children.

My final note is a personal one. I’ve always felt slightly envious of female friends who don’t work because of the 'quality time' they have with their children. At the same time I know some of them have felt a bit envious of me because of my interesting job. It’s the perennial problem - what my mum calls the ‘fourth stage of childbirth’ where after the contractions, the pushing and the placenta, comes the millstone of guilt that hangs around your neck forever!  Respecting the choices that women make and supporting them with policies that show empathy, rather than ‘the state knows best’ are the way to appeal to women. Perhaps getting on with our coalition pledge to recognise marriage in the tax system would underline our support for the family!


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