Whistling in the dark: The Conservative’s strategy for winning women’s votes is optimistic and directionlesson 19 September 2013
Claire Annesley and Francesca Gains
Earlier this spring Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s former spindoctor, suggested that ‘Sam Cam’ was the Conservatives’ ‘secret weapon’ to win back women’s votes. This is a clear sign that in the run up to the next election the battle to win women’s votes is intensifying - and for good reason. For many years after winning the franchise women in the UK were more likely to vote Conservative, and the ‘gender gap’ (the difference in the Conservative lead over Labour between male and female votes) was in double figures. In the 1970s and 1980s, as women’s roles in the home and the workplace changed, the gender difference in voting narrowed and psephologists argued that sex differences were not important in understanding UK voting patterns. However the re-emergence of a small but significant gender gap in 1992, reflecting a swing by younger women to Labour, led to a sustained interest by the Labour Party in identifying and mobilising around women’s interests and demands which contributed to their successful 1997 return to office. In the face of recent polling data, which shows falling support for the Conservative from women, the party has sought - rather belatedly - to proffer a more female friendly campaign strategy. As well as Coulson’s advice on Sam Cam, Conservativehome.com ran a week-long series of blogs on ‘The Conservatives and women’ and recent policy announcements, such as childcare funding reform, have been floated to boost support from women. But are these initiatives likely to succeed in identifying and mobilising women’s votes? We don’t think they are.
Of course, it makes no sense to talk of a single set of ‘women’s interests’: groups of women have many different, and only sometimes overlapping interests and these intersect with other political cleavages associated with class, race and age. However, psephologists such as Rosie Campbell point out there are three factors that still make the quest for women’s votes incredibly important for all parties in the run up to the 2015 election. First, women currently make up 52% of the electorate – so there are simply more of them. Second, there are some sex differences in political attitudes with women more likely to favour spending on public services and less likely to support cuts in public spending. Third, women are more likely to be swing voters and make up their minds closer the election. In short, winning women’s votes is, and needs to be, a key preoccupation of both main parties. So what can Cameron learn from the Labour Party’s successful strategy pre and post 1997?
The Labour Party was felt to be the natural home for many feminist campaigners. At all levels - from the grassroots to senior politicians and advisers - they have provided a coherent supply of ideas for how to attract support from women. From 1987 onwards, and especially after the 1992 election, this campaigning zeal met with recognition from the Party hierarchy that closing the gender gap in voting was an electoral imperative.
The Labour Party began to look more female with the unpopular, but effective, all women’s shortlist policy which delivered record numbers of female MPs into Parliament in 1997. The increased presence of female MPs contributed to better understanding of the varied nature of women’s interests and demands. This is not to suggest that only women can act for women – they don’t necessarily, and male politicians can act for women too - but research does suggest that the higher the number of women MPs, the greater the likelihood that at least some of them will encourage Governments to give attention to policies which affect women’s interests.
Once in Government Blair gave his first five cabinet posts to women (Margaret Beckett, Clare Short, Mo Mowlam, Harriet Harman and Ann Taylor) and fulfilled a manifesto promise to create the post of Minister for Women and a policy capacity in Government devoted to women and equality. Over time these innovations became embedded in Government, providing a well-integrated and networked policy capacity devoted to gender equality, culminating in the introduction of a Gender Equality Duty requiring public bodies to promote equality between the sexes. At the end of Labour’s period in office 31 per cent of Brown’s administration were women, the Minister for Women was supported by a well-integrated Equalities Office and the Gender Equality Duty ensured a gender awareness was entrenched in the machinery of government. The verdict on policy outcomes for women was largely positive. The minimum wage, support for childcare, enhanced leave for parents and pension reform to include carers credits were all beneficial for women. Though not perfect, the Labour Party had a coherent and embedded strategy to look more female, secure more women MPs and ministers and deliver substantive policy change which benefit women voters. The Party improved its symbolic, descriptive and substantive representation of women.
In contrast, the Conservatives have few of these advantages in planning and executing a strategy to mobilise women’s votes. On the face of it David Cameron appears committed to feminising the Conservative Party. But there are considerable roadblocks to translating his personal commitment into a success strategy for delivering the votes of women swing voters at the next election. These arise from weaknesses in the Coalition’s symbolic, descriptive and substantive representation of women.
Recent research on Conservative party members shows gender differences in attitudes towards gender equality and policy issues pertinent to women voters such as equal pay and abortion. But attempts to formulate a coherent policy offer in relation to women, for example in a 2008 publication by the Conservative Women’s Policy Group, lack the coherence, organisation or determination of Labour’s campaigning feminists in the 1980s onwards. The same research confirmed anecdotal reports of strong resistance to gender equality guarantees, such as Labour’s all women shortlists, and strong resistance from local selectorates to any steer to chose from the more gender balanced ‘A’ list drawn up by Cameron before 2010. Despite press attention to high profile women adopted on the ‘A’ list, few were placed in winnable seats so, while the increase in the number of Conservatives women MPs after 2010 was from 17 to 48, this still only represents 16% of Conservative MPs, half of Labour’s 32% women MPs.
On ministers, Cameron faces a pipeline problem in bringing women into government due to the smaller pool of female MPs from both coalition partners. Despite his 2008 pledge that one-third of his cabinet would be women, currently just 4 of 23 paid members of cabinet are women. Junior appointments made at the last reshuffle are likely to permit some improvement in the number of women in Cabinet before the next election, but overall the number of women in Government is far smaller than under Brown’s tenure. What is more, four ministries, including the Treasury, have no women ministers in the team; and the key policy negotiating forum for the coalition partners – the Quad - is entirely male.
On top of this depleted supply of policy advocacy from women MPs and ministers the gender policy machinery assembled under Labour has been systematically disbanded and bypassed since 2010. The budget of the Government Equalities Office was reduced by 38% meaning that the Women’s National Commission was abolished and the remit of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been scaled back. The government has been challenged twice for not applying the Gender Equality Duty to key budgeting and policy decisions. Instead Cameron appointed a lone special advisor on women - Laura Trott - but she is anonymous.
In short the quality and quantity of information available to Conservative strategists regarding the interests of women voters is drastically reduced and lacks coherence. And it shows. Coalition policy proposals affecting women have been faltering, with many false starts and u-turns. For example, at the beginning of the Parliament a proposal to offer defendants in rape trials anonymity was reversed, and in June this year proposals to make child care more affordable through increasing the ratio of carer-child ratios were dropped. But the biggest issue the Conservatives face is the detrimental impact the Coalition’s austerity policies have on women voters. Research from several organisations such as the UK Women’s Budget Group and the Institute for Fiscal Studies finds that women have been the biggest losers from fiscal retrenchment in terms of income, jobs and public services. When the gender differences in attitudes towards public spending and austerity cuts amongst men and women voters is considered, the electoral consequences of these policy choices could be profound for the Conservative Party’s strategy to mobilise women’s votes at the next election.
Overall, Cameron’s Conservatives face many obstacles in the all important electoral goal of restoring their historic lead amongst women voters. They lack a coherent and diverse supply of policy ideas from the party, women MPs and ministers which would provide a convincing policy platform to mobilise women voters. Their policy offer is confused and in many cases damaging to key swing voters. In strategizing to mobilise women’s votes at the next election the Conservatives appear to be whistling in the dark with potentially profound electoral consequences. Given the structural and institutional weaknesses in policy awareness of gender issues in the Conservative Party and in Government, it is difficult to see how symbolic politics - bringing Sam Cam to the policy table - will give credibility to Conservative claims to act for women, let alone restore their historical dominance amongst women voters.
Claire Annesley is Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester. Francesca Gains is Professor of Public Policy, also at the University of Manchester. A longer version of this argument was presented at the ‘Fragmented Democracy’ Conference organized by the British Politics Group (BPG) of the American Political Science Association, University of Chicago Business School, 28 August, 2013 as ‘Can Cameron Capture Women Voters? The Gendered Impediments to a Conservative Majority in 2015’.