The coalition's woes with women

For the Liberal Democrats there is both extreme risk and a glimmer of opportunity.

If you want to see a fearful expression, talk to senior coalition members about shifting patterns of support among women voters. Call it a cold-sweat, or a premature onset of mid-term jitters -- they are distinctly, indisputably on edge. Which is odd, at least on the face of it, given that the Conservatives -- if not their Coalition partners -- are currently polling at broadly similar levels of support to the last election. So what explains this onset of nerves?

To help answer that question the Resolution Foundationasked Ipsos MORI to undertake a detailed analysis of voting intentions in the first half of 2011 compared to the 2010 general election result. The findings are striking - and they reveal one thing beyond doubt: when it comes to support amongst women, the Coalition does have reason to be anxious, even if some of the recent comment on this issue has been overblown.

Source: Ipsos MORI
Base: 10,211 GB adults aged 18+, 19 March-5 May 2010; 7,176 GB adults aged 18+, January-July 2011

Of course, it's important to tread very carefully when talking about the so-called women's vote (itself a meaningless phrase -- when do you ever hear politicians talking about the "men's vote"?). Sensible generalisations can rarely be made about half the electorate. Nor do the headline figures stand up the contention that a dramatic gender gap in electoral support has opened up. Most people, regardless of gender, care about the same issues -- jobs, inflation and living standards; crime; immigration and the NHS.

And the impact of age, class, occupation and geography often trumps that of sex in explaining differences.

But make no mistake, and despite all the caveats, some shifts are occurring. It's well established that at the last general election, women were on average more likely to vote for the Liberal Democrats than men (26 per cent v 22 per cent), as well as Labour (31 per cent v 28 per cent).

Less understood and more interesting are the staggering variations that exist underneath these headline figures. Women aged 25-34 were more likely to vote for Labour than the Conservatives (11-point lead) whereas C2 female voters (of all ages) were dramatically more likely to back the Conservatives than Labour (by a remarkable 17 points), fully reversing Labour's towering 18 point advantage among the same group in 1997.

Following the 2010 election, during the early and easy days of the Coalition, Tory support climbed among women, reaching a commanding 45 per cent in one poll at the end of 2010, hovering just below 40 per cent in others, compared to around 34 per cent of men. Since then the Tories' lead amongst women has fallen, dropping below that of men in many polls.

Perhaps more noteworthy is that overall levels of 'approval' for the Coalition have fallen to 25 per cent among women, 8 per cent lower than for men. Just 13 per cent of women feel that the Conservative Party is the party which is closest to women and best understands and reflects their views; plummeting to 7 per cent for the Lib Dems. When it comes to their personal ratings both Cameron and Clegg have a deficit of 6 per centamongst women compared to men. No wonder Downing Street strategists -- both Conservative and Lib Dem -- are jumpy.

Given that these headline findings about "women's attitudes" inevitably conceal more than they reveal it is vital to get a more granular account of changes in political support amongst different groups of women. To make a start at this we can break down levels of support in 2011 by age and social class compared to those in the 2010 election (admittedly still very broad and crude categories).

The results are intriguing. In terms of social class we see that both the Tories and Lib Dems have haemorrhaged support amongst C2 women (typically skilled manual workers), often key voters in swing seats. In contrast the Tories have actually gained support amongst female AB voters (professional and managerial), and seen their support hold steady amongst male C2s.

The Lib Dems have performed even worse amongst female ABs than other classes. They also show that the proportion of women aged 18-24 who support the Tories has declined from an already low 30 per cent at the General Election to just 18 per cent in 2011, while support among the same group for Liberal Democrats has collapsed from 34 per cent to just 8 per cent, meaning the coalition has succeeded in losing 38 per cent of its support among this group. To be clear, male voting intentions have also moved in the same direction but to a lesser extent.


Source: Ipsos MORI
Base: 10,211 GB adults aged 18+, 19 March-5 May 2010; 7,176 GB adults aged 18+, January-July 2011

There are plenty of potential explanations for these shifts -- though very little hard evidence as to which is most telling. Much of the media comment earlier in the year focused on some of the Coalition's unfortunate symbolic moments which have pierced the public consciousness -- from David Cameron's "Michael Winner moment" during PMQs to Ken Clarke's linguistic contortions over rape.

More recently the focus has switched to the way in which the deteriorating economic situation is impacting on many women, particularly those on low-to-middle incomes. Over the last quarter unemployment increased by 38,000, with 21,000 being women. Female unemployment had already risen by 76,900 over the last year - with the number of women out of work now 1.05 million, the highest since the spring of 1988 - and the forecasts are that female unemployment will continue to rise as women are disproportionately suffering due to their higher concentration in the public sector. Qualitative research suggests that women are more inclined to be pessimistic about the economy and feel they are more likely to lose out as a result of cuts. On top of this, particular groups of women -- such as those in their 50s -- are being faced with major shifts in their pension age that they weren't anticipating, causing real concern.

As Ben Page of Ipsos Morri says, "Women, and working class women in particular, are shifting away from the government, reflecting the fact that they are hardest hit by both the recession and cuts in public spending."

Given the wider economic context of falling wages and rising prices you might think it is a uniquely dumb moment to be making it more difficult for households to sustain two people in work by withdrawing childcare support. But that is what is happening.

As leading welfare expert Donald Hirsch has pointed out, April's cut in support from 80 per cent to 70 per cent of eligible childcare costs may not sound all that much to some people - including ministers. Not, that is, until you work out what it means for the many families with young children struggling on low wages who will be most affected. A couple with two young children paying out £200 a week in childcare will need to find an extra £20 a week to recoup this lost tax-credit income. That's £1,000 a year of post-tax income.

What does this imply for their pre-tax earnings? To recover the full £1,000 they'd have to earn an extra £3,700. Fat chance. Many women are likely to conclude that work simply doesn't pay.

Some straws in the wind suggest these changes may be starting to take their toll. A poll out last week reported that the high costs of childcare were leading high proportion of low-income parents to consider reducing their hours or give up work; whilst another recent report found the number of families getting income from a second salary has fallen from 36 per cent in May this year to 30 per cent in August. Median monthly net family income dropped by two percentage points over the same period - the main determinant being an 8 per cent drop in women's incomes while men's incomes rose.

And now the mistake on childcare policy looks set to be compounded. As was first flagged up in spring, and has been back in the news over the summer, there are further changes in the pipeline - as childcare support gets integrated within the universal credit, making employment even less worthwhile for many working mothers. (Note that when it comes to childcare it is low-earners who will bear the brunt of reduced support, the tax-relief going to higher-earners via childcare vouchers remains unscathed by the Coalition).

Stir into this cocktail the proposed abolition of Child Benefit for higher rate tax payers scheduled for 2013, the most aggrieved victims of which will be women in single-earner households living on just over £40,000. Their outrage will be given added piquancy if this coincides -- as is widely tipped -- with the abolition of the 50p tax rate, benefiting the richest 1 per cent of earners, the majority of whom are, of course, men.

Clearly all this gives Labour a lot to aim at -and there has been no-shortage of tactical attacks. Labour's polling position has strengthened, especially among C2 women. But they are yet to convert improved poll ratings based on protest into solid support, and still need to grapple with the deeper sociological and economic changes in UK society that will reshape the nature of the electoral coalition required to win in 2015.

For the Liberal Democrats there is both extreme risk and a glimmer of opportunity. The risk, of course, is that their shattered support among working women continues to act as an anchor on their overall levels of support as the party soaks up blame for unpopular decisions. The opportunity as they see it is to rebuild some of their bedrock support by differentiating themselves on issues thoughts to appeal to key groups of women. Senior Lib Dem strategists are seized of the need for this and see "our catastrophic loss of support amongst working women, especially C1s/C2s, as perhaps our biggest electoral challenge", more so even than the collapse amongst 18-24s who tend to vote less. "If we are not seen as a party of mainstream working women we are nowhere."

Expect senior Lib Dems to use their Conference to package their flagship policies on tax-allowances, part-time students, and shared parental leave to make this point. And don't be surprised to see them playing up what they see as the social conservatism of both main parties -- whether it be Nadine Dorries on the right, or the mis-firings of Blue Labour on the left, as evidence that they are more in tune with the mood of mainstream women.

The reality, though, is that in times like these, economics tends to dominate. As senior Lib Dems concede, the party has little chance of getting a hearing if the Coalition's agenda -- particularly on issues like childcare - is seen as another threat to living standards. Which explains why they view further proposed cuts to childcare with escalating levels of anxiety, and why Nick Clegg has inserted himself in key Whitehall discussions on the future of the childcare tax-credit.

Clegg will no doubt find that fights like these -- with spending implications - are the toughest. Unfortunately for him they are a key litmus test for his ability to improve the lives of low-to-middle income working mothers. Cuts to childcare support are hitting working women where it hurts at the worst possible moment. For their sake, as well as his own, this is a battle the Lib Dem leader needs to win.

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation 

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.