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Charlotte Vere: We Conservatives need a fundamental rethink to win the trust of women

Screen shot 2013-01-02 at 07.12.37Charlotte Vere is the Executive Director of the Girls’ Schools Association.  She is also the Founder of Women On, a campaign group for women in the economy, and was formerly the Finance Director of No2AV.  She was the Conservative PPC in Brighton Pavilion in 2010. Follow Charlotte on Twitter.

This is the first contribution to a week long ConservativeHome series on women.

If you are brave enough to dip your toe into the debate around women, the expectation is that you will fall into one of two camps: the pro-quota, pro-positive discrimination proponents, driven by radical feminists and the ‘equalities industry’, or 1950s-rooted traditionalists warning of imminent social destruction should mums go out to work.  Both are misguided.

To make any headway in gaining the trust of women, the Conservatives need to offer something new. They need to rethink the issue entirely, by starting with a Miliband-style blank piece of paper and drawing up a long-term strategy to reconnect.  Contrary to the intransigent beliefs of some, it is possible to construct a strong Conservative message based on core values of choice, responsibility and self-reliance which chimes with women.  A pragmatic message rooted in economic resilience and social success, which resonates with the country we live in today, rather than harking back to the country of yore.

Two years ago the media leapt on the Conservative’s ‘women problem’;  real or perceived lack of female support was singled out as a key handicap to winning an outright majority.  Late last year, the US election saw Mitt Romney shunned by black and Asian voters, but the result from female voters was even more devastating – and the same could happen in the UK.  As 2015 draws ever closer, surely the need for a clear message delivered by the right people becomes ever more stark?

So given the electoral imperative why, two years on, does it feel that the Conservatives haven’t left the starting blocks?  Part of the reason for the malaise is that neither of the two existing schools of thought is comfortable: Labour has embraced the radical feminist/‘equalities industry’ view of the world which preaches restitution for women as a result of decades of rampant patriarchy, and the alternative, the 1950s-traditionalist mode of thinking, well, it just isn’t relevant anymore.  It is time for some original thought.

The Conservatives, who often pride themselves on being a broad church, need to make that church just a little wider and build a view across the party that encouraging support from women is not a symptom of failure of historic policies, but a pragmatic acceptance than any modern political party cannot ignore half the population.

The harmful voices in the party are loud indeed and should not be tolerated.  Only recently, the Observer reported a ‘senior Tory’ referring to Maria Miller as a ‘dull, over-promoted housewife’.  How wrong, how rude and how harmful.  And how likely it is that the ‘senior Tory’ would himself struggle to reach middle management status in provincial retail chain.  Why must we turn on our own like this, and frequently with a latent sexism that exposes a hankering back to a world of women, well, ‘knowing their place’.

The way forward is hard, but it can be done.  The party must build a narrative that is inclusive and welcoming and attractive to women – broaden the church so to speak.  The world we live in speaks for itself: girls significantly outperform boys at both A level and GCSE, there are now more women accepted into University than there are men even applying, and women under the age of 29 earn more than men.  Women are a valuable component of our economy and rather than resorting to scaremongering about mother-less, feral latchkey kids, we should be celebrating a women’s right to choose her path, we should be encouraging full and equal involvement of fathers and we should be providing support to families.  Doing well by women means doing well by the country as a whole.

Secondly, we must address the glaring structural and cultural inequalities that still exist, participation in the workforce for example.  There are many women who are not employed to their full potential – they have taken jobs for which they are over-qualified or they are working part-time when they would like to work-full time.  Supporting women in their career choices will release economic potential and enable the market to produce the female leaders and the female board members of the future.

Addressing participation in the workforce is just one area of inequality, there are other more subtle deficiencies.  For example, at present, girls in a single-sex independent school are four times more likely to take Physics A level than those at a co-ed school in the maintained sector.  We are unlikely to significantly increase the number of female engineers whilst these inequalities exist.

Thirdly, the Conservatives should focus on using the many talented individuals in the party to take the message to the media and to push the message in government.  In the media, it might be helpful to reach out beyond the usual suspects, and to use men and women – it is important to move away from the dated idea that only women can talk about women, about families and about the challenges of balancing responsibilities.  In government it is right that there is a focus on encouraging mixed-gender thinking and adding a breadth of experience in all areas.  For example, it remains worrying that the Treasury is an almost completely female-free zone.

Furthermore, the Conservatives must stop handing good news stories and female-friendly policy announcements to the Liberal Democrats.  Why is it that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats get to continually burnish their caring credentials when it is a Conservative government too?
And lastly, we must call out sexism where we see it.  It should not be acceptable in a modern Conservative party for anyone to attack another on the basis of gender.  We must recognise the attributes that each individual brings, whether male or female, and the experience that he or she may have had.

The Conservatives could and should feel like that natural party for women.  Where values of hard work, compassion and ensuring the success of future generations are rewarded.  Labour is in a vulnerable position on the issue with numerous open flanks where female-friendly policies have been implemented to the detriment of men.  If the Conservatives can structure a strong cohesive narrative to form the foundations, the party could win the debate.

But the Conservatives, male and female, must be brave enough to enter the debate and see it in its broadest context; it is essential for the future electoral success of the party.  Whenever a Conservative speaks on any topic anywhere, simply understanding that the message will be heard by both men and women is a start, and there are at least a million potential supporters ready to listen.


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