The waning tradition of Tory women

The decline in women's support for the Conservative party is not a recent phenomenon.

Yesterday's PMQs gave the Labour MP, Gloria Del Piero, the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister why the Government was more unpopular with women than men, which gave Cameron a chance to list the Government's female-friendly initiatives.

There's been a lot of discussion recently about the perception of the Conservative party amongst women, and not all of it draws the correct conclusions from the data. So let's look at what the polling actually shows and try to debunk some myths.

The first important point to note is that there has been a decline in the traditional Conservative lead over Labour amongst women, but this is a long-term effect rather than a recent phenomenon.

Throughout the 70s, 80s, and early 90s (with the exception of 1987), the Conservatives held the lead in the female vote. However, that was chipped away with each election -- and in fact, it was Tony Blair who made the biggest impact, turning a six point Conservative lead among women in 1992 into a six point Labour lead at the time of his last election victory in 2005.

More generally, this reflects the "flattening-out" of demographics seen over the last 30 years, as many of the old predictors of voting behaviour no longer hold so true (notably the decline of class-based voting). This leads us onto our second point.

Since the 2010 general election, voting intentions among men and women have moved in broadly the same direction.

When we aggregate all our polling data in 2011, and compare it to the 2010 election result, there has been a 7.5 per centage point swing to Labour's lead over the Conservatives among men, and a 5.5 point swing to Labour among women -- so not much to choose between them. Furthermore, the source of the change is very similar in both cases. Labour is gaining at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, with the Conservative vote broadly holding up (and in so far as it has fallen, more among men than women).

As an aside, if the Conservatives really want to be worried about a particular group, maybe they should have a look at young people. Among 18-24 year olds there has been a swing to Labour of a massive 18 points. Incidentally, this also illustrates that treating women voters as a single homogenous group is a gross simplification, although that is perhaps a topic for another day.

However, that is not to say that the Conservatives do not have a problem among women. Have they demonstrated that they "get" women's concerns about the impact of the downturn on day-to-day family life?

Moving beyond simple voting intentions, the Conservative party does have a perception problem amongst women. They are less satisfied with the performance of the government, and with David Cameron. The danger for the Tories is that perceptions of being a strong government and good in a crisis appeal more to men than women, who may feel they don't represent their priorities. For example, only a quarter of women say the Conservative Party looks after the interests of people like them (26 per cent, compared to 37 per cent of men), and they are also less likely to trust it to promote family values.

Much of this may be due to the particular impact the economic crisis is having on women (the "womencession", although that's a horribly clunky phrase). More than half of women think that the economy will get worse, and they are more pessimistic than men.

Research Ipsos MORI conducted at the beginning of the recession showed that women were much more worried than men about the impact of the downturn on their family life, job (or unemployment) prospects for other members of their family, and day-to-day issues like paying the bills or the impact on childcare.

So is this all an opportunity for Labour?

On the face of it, yes. On the economy, there is a clearly a set of concerns that Labour can exploit. And while the economy and unemployment are the top issues for women as they are for men, they are also more likely to be concerned about the NHS and education, traditional Labour strengths.

However, so far this anti-Conservative mood among women does not seem to translate into a great deal of pro-Labour sentiment another claim put about in the media at the moment. In our latest Reuters Political Monitor, while women are more negative about the Conservatives across a range of party characteristics, values, and leader traits, they are not much more positive about Labour. Even on the number one issue of the economy, although women are less likely than men to say the Conservatives have the best economic policies (by 28 per cent to 34 per cent), the proportion who choose Labour is exactly the same (24 per cent women, 23 per cent men).

It is true that if only men had had the vote in 2010, the Conservatives might have won an overall majority, while if only women voted we may have seen a red-yellow hue to the coalition. The polling data however points to something more complex than a simple story of all women leading a charge away from the Tories, and both parties (not to mention the Liberal Democrats) could do better.

The challenge for the next election is which party can understand these complexities, while still building a message that will appeal to the country as a whole.

Gideon Skinner is Head of Politics at Ipsos MORI

Gideon Skinner is Head of Political Research at IpsosMori. He tweets as @GideonSkinner.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times