The Tories' problem with women keeps getting worse

Conservative Party polling finds that women overwhelmingly believe the economy is going in the wrong

The coalition's trouble with women has been under the spotlight in recent weeks. Today, internal polling by the Conservative Party, published by the Times (£), confirms that women are turning away from the Tories in droves.

It found a drastic gender gap in attitudes, with 25 per cent more women than men believing that the economy is going in the wrong direction, and 10 per cent more believing that cuts are unfair. Overall favourability towards the government was 12 per cent lower among women, while women were twice as likely to think that their children will have a worse life than their generation did.

This is hardly a new trend, but it does confirm an existing problem. A recent New Statesman leader outlines the polling evidence:

The Tories' disproportionately low support among women prevented them from winning a majority at the last general election and could deny them one at the next. Among men, the party led Labour by 10 points at the last election but among women it led by just 4. The situation has since grown worse. An Ipsos MORI poll published on 14 September found that support for the Conservatives among women had slumped to 29 per cent, compared to 38 per cent among men. Worse for the Tories, a New Statesman/ICD poll published on 4 October found that just 35 per cent of women "would consider" voting for the Conservatives at the next election and that 65 per cent would not.

While one should be wary of broad generalisations about a large group such as "women voters", this is a worry for the Tories. The support is particularly dropping away among C2 women, typically skilled manual workers. A recent post by Gavin Kelly suggested some of the reasons this might be: the way that public sector job cuts are disproportionately affecting women, the rise in retirement age, and cuts to childcare.

Advisers have told the Prime Minister that he will struggle to win a majority in 2015 if something is not done. In an attempt to tackle this growing problem, David Cameron is to focus on issues seen to appeal to women, such as the sexualisation of children, and boosting adoptions. However, Labour's Yvette Cooper has a strong attack line when she says: "They think they have a presentation problem but actually it is a policy problem."

This latest poll shows that women are not simply concerned about "female" issues like childcare, but are fundamentally concerned by the deficit reduction programme and the direction in which the economy is going. It will take more than Cameron presenting himself as "caring" to tackle this perception.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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