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Tom Mludzinski: Women and the Conservative Party – a deteriorating relationship?

Tom MTom Mludzinski is Deputy Head of Politics for Ipsos MORI. This is the text of the talk he gave to ConHome's Victory 2015 Conference on 9th March. Follow Tom on Twitter.

For much of the time that Ipsos MORI (and formerly MORI) has been polling the public, dating back to the October 1974 General Election, the Conservative Party has enjoyed a greater lead over Labour among women than men. However, that dominance has been in long term decline. The Conservatives’ so called “problem with women” is not a new phenomenon and is certainly not purely David Cameron's problem. Nevertheless women’s experiences of the recession and their more personal concerns about the effects of economic hardship give clues as to how to appeal to women when searching for their votes.

Before looking at the polling data on “women” it is important to set out an obvious caveat from the start: women are not a homogenous group who all think the same way – no one would dream of saying that men only vote on “men’s issues”. There are of course rich women, poor women, old women, young women, women from the north, south, midlands etc. and these differences are just as likely to have an impact on voting intentions and political attitudes. However, for the purpose of this analysis we are looking broadly at “women” to identify some clear patterns and any differences with men.

In October 1974 the Conservative Party performed had a one point lead over Labour among women but were 11 points behind Labour among men. This exemplifies just how important the female vote was to the Conservative party. However, ever since then that relative gap has gradually declined, election by election the Conservative dominance among women has been waning. Eventually it was the 2005 General Election when, for the first time since our records began, the Conservatives did better among men than women. The 2010 General Election produced a continuation of that pattern as once again the Conservative lead over Labour was bigger among men than women.

In fact, since the 2010 election, up until the end of 2012, the Conservative Party lost as many male supporters as female. Among men support for the Conservatives fell from 38% at the election to 34% at the end of 2012, among women it fell from 36% to 32% - ie. a fall of four points among both gneders. However, while the Tories have lost as many men as women, Labour’s lead is far higher among women than men. To answer how this can be true, you have to look at the other parties. Labour’s gains are mostly from the Liberal Democrats, indeed the Liberal Democrats have fallen 12 points among men compared to a fall of 18 points among women. Men meanwhile are more likely to be switching to UKIP, as my recent post for Conservative Home explained, around two-thirds of UKIP supporters are male and just under half (43%) had voted for the Conservatives in 2010.

Much has been said and written in the media about David Cameron’s “women problem”. As explained earlier the decline in the Conservatives’ support among women is a long term trend and therefore not applicable simply to David Cameron. Further evidence of it not being purely Mr Cameron’s problem is that women (and men) say they like David Cameron more than they like the Conservative Party.

However, there is also some evidence to suggest that the Prime Minister is personally doing worse among women than men. While men and women equally like Mr Cameron, women are more likely than men to like Ed Miliband. A look at the two men’s approval ratings shows a similar story. The March Ipsos MORI Political Monitor had both leaders with similar net satisfaction (% satisfaction minus % dissatisfied) scores among men (-25 for both) though Mr Cameron does worse among women with a net rating of -35 compared to -15 for Mr Miliband. This pattern is backed up when looking at the aggregate data across all our polling in 2012.

Further evidence of the perceived problem the Conservative Party has on women is that Labour is seen as the party “best at looking after the interests of women” and the Liberal Democrats come in second (34% Labour, 17% Liberal Democrats, 12% Conservatives). But what are the interests of women? In 2012 the top two issues facing Britain as identified by women were exactly the same as those mentioned by men: the economy and unemployment. However, women were slightly more likely to say the NHS and education are important issues, and this is reflected in other research which shows women tend to be more worried about issues more likely to affect families. Incidentally, it is worth highlighting that these two areas (health and education) are Labour strongholds in terms of being seen as the best party.

While the economy and unemployment are the most important issues for both men and women, a deeper look reveals where women have greater, more personal concerns around the impact of the economic downturn on them and their family. Women are slightly more likely than men to think their own personal financial circumstances are going to get worse (46% and 40% respectively). They are also more likely to worry about: being able to pay the bills, their children’s job prospects, their ability to buy the things they are used to and being able to retire as planned. It is on this, more personal economic territory that a level of empathy and understanding and of course solutions could prove to be popular among women voters. Although, at the moment when asked which party has the best policies on the economy 28% of women say Labour and 22% chose the Conservatives – while men are more likely to pick the Conservatives (32%) over Labour (24%).

Finally, a line on how men and women differ in their approach to politics. While men are more likely to say they are interested in “politics” women are more likely to be interested in the social policy side of politics – their interest is likely to peak when it directly affects them and their family, for example around health and education. This will not only come from being a woman but other roles they hold such as mothers or carers. Women also engage in politics differently, being more likely to help on fundraising drives, signing petitions, doing voluntary work and urging people to get in touch with councillors or MPs. Men on the other hand are more likely to express a political opinion online, write a letter to an editor and discuss politics. Indeed, research by the academics Rosie Campbell and Kristi Winters suggests that men comment on political developments “as one might watch and comment upon a sports match” while women were less focussed on the “politics” of politics and are more interested in the domestic aspect and how things affect them and those around them.

The Conservatives have been losing the support of women, but it is by no means a new problem. In order to better engage with women then it is important to understand not only what aspects of politics concern them most but also how it is presented to them.


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