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The Conservatives are losing female supporters. Why?

By Matthew Barrett
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In the current issue of the Spectator (not online), Melanie McDonagh examines the issue of declining female support for the Tories. The Sunday Times (£) today has new polling from YouGov, on the same subject.

The Conservatives have never won a general election without gaining a majority of female support - so the polling showing women are turning away from the Party will give George Osborne, and other Tory strategists, cause for concern. From the Sunday Times:

"Women have been the Conservative party’s secret weapon for decades. There is no election that the Tories have won where women have not voted disproportionately for the blue candidate. It is estimated that had women not voted, Labour would have been in power continuously since 1945. That is why Tony Blair put so much effort into winning female support. The swing to Labour in 1997 was greater among women than men, and in 2005 38% of women voted Labour compared with 32% for the Tories."

The Spectator and Sunday Times point to a number of shared ideas as to why female support is declining:

  • Women are the main users of public services, so public spending cuts negatively impact upon women more than men - or are perceived to do so
  • Women are also more likely to be providers of public services than men, so a variety of factors (cuts, job losses, pay freezes) again, either negatively impact more on women than men, or are seen to do so
  • Prison sentencing policy - of the different crimes covered by Ken Clarke's proposed sentencing reduction scheme, rape got the most headlines, and, understandably, the Coalition was perceived as being insufficiently tough on a crime that in the vast majority of cases is carried out by men against women
  • Raising the pension age for women - the media has treated this story as if the Coalition is specifically victimising a select group of women (those born in March 1953 will begin to receive their pension at 62, but women born in April 1953 will have to wait until 65)
  • NHS reforms - as with the public sector as a whole, women are both the main providers and main receivers of state healthcare. Therefore the proposed reforms, the handling of which even alienated many who supported them, will have meant women worrying about what the Coalition planned for the NHS
  • Cutting Child Benefit - although this policy personally affected only some higher-earning families, the impression given by the proposals was that the Conservatives didn't think the weekly Child Benefit payment made much of a difference to families - and this impression could have affected far more women than just those whose Child Benefit would have been cut
  • Women often manage the family budget, so have more acutely noticed pay freezes, perhaps pay cuts, the rising cost of keeping a household, and the VAT tax rise
  • Gaffes - the "calm down, dear" put-down to Labour MP Angela Eagle during Prime Minister's Questions a few weeks ago reinforced the impression that David Cameron can be unaware of how he comes across to women. Another prominent example of this is when the Prime Minister and President Obama hosted a barbecue in the garden of Downing Street, and they manned the barbecue, while their wives were relegated to serving salad

Less obvious causes, or perhaps symptoms, of female discontent with the Party include:

  • The lack of prominent women at the top of the Party/Coalition (Theresa May is in a prominent role, but fellow Cabinet members Sayeeda Warsi, Cheryl Gillan and Caroline Spelman have less public exposure)
  • The dominance of male advisors in the Government - meaning policies that may come across as disproportionately anti-women are not picked up as such before they are announced to the public
  • The Coalition's ability to adopt high-publicity pro-women policies is limited, because Labour passed lots of pro-equality and pro-women's rights legislation. The state of the economy also limits the Coalition's ability in this area


Anthony Wells, from UK Polling Report, has a post up today (from which the graph above is taken), which suggests the difference in political outlook between men and women is not one of substantial policy matters:

"In terms of actually policy there is normally little difference between men and women policy. Women normally say they are concerned at pretty much the same issues as men (the idea that women care about “soft” issues like education and health and men care about “hard” issues like defence, crime and the economy is basically nonsense), and on most policy questions there is little difference between the genders


Two policy areas that did have significant differences between women and men were tightening restrictions on sexualised music videos and adverts broadcast when children might see them and equalising the pension age at 66 by 2020."

Wells' argument that, apart from smaller issues, men and women do not really disagree, can be taken to the conclusion that the decline in female support for the Tories is one of style (although this is not an argument Wells makes), rather than substance. The botched publicity operations on the NHS, on pensions, on Child Benefit, on sentencing rapists, and on cuts overall, have contributed to the decline in support for the Conservatives by women.

> Earlier today we looked at another of Cameron's voting weaknesses: The North


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