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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Low fat, full fat: why the diet industry keeps changing its mind

A new report illustrates just how disillusioned the diet industry has become, at the expense of everyone else.

Another year, another wave of dietary fads. Most seem to surface in the summer, when new nutritional advice claims to provide the panacea to everyone’s health woes: “Eat clean get lean!” “The simple secret of intermittent fasting!” “The paleo way is the only way!” “Six weeks to a super you!”

However, despite the barrage of diet books, the expansion of nutrition research and the growth of education about healthy living, global obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

It may be that this is due to the conflicting information constantly issued from the diet industry. “Eat lots of protein – it’ll speed up your metabolism!” “Too much protein will damage your kidneys – reduce your protein intake!” “Superfoods are a vital source of antioxidants!” “Superfoods aren’t so super at all!” “Don’t snack it will make you pile on the pounds!” “You should snack – it’ll stop you from binge eating!” It’s no wonder people aren’t sure what to eat.

The UK launched its first dietary guidelines in 1994, which have since been continuously revised to form the guide now known as “The Eatwell Plate”. The dietary guidelines recommend plentiful carbohydrates “such as rice, bread, pasta and potatoes”, at least five portions of fruits and vegetables, some protein, some milk, some dairy and minimal saturated fat.

However, a recent report serves to highlight the confusion consumers face when it comes to food: it claims that the official advice on low-fat diets is outright wrong, even damaging.

Led by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration, the report (not peer-reviewed, it’s worth noting) attacked a host of official health proposals. It claims that “eating fat does not make you fat”, and criticises Eatwell Plate’s small fat allowance. The report also stated that saturated fats have been unfairly demonised, as there is allegedly little evidence to suggest that they cause heart disease. Meanwhile sugar consumption should be dialled down to zero, apparently, and calories shouldn’t be counted, as an abundance of them won’t cause obesity. Also, forget about the exercise - apparently a bad diet can’t be outrun, according to the report.

Professor David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “As a clinician, treating patients all day every day, I quickly realised that guidelines from on high, suggesting high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets were the universal panacea, were deeply flawed. Current efforts have failed – the proof being that obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists.”

Dr Aseem Malhotra, consultant cardiologist and founding member of the Public Health Collaboration reinforced this by saying the guidelines were “perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history, resulting in devastating consequences for public health.” Under current dietary guidelines, obesity levels have indeed increased in the UK, with nearly two-thirds of men and women overweight or obese, costing the economy more than £3bn per year.

In the face of such starkly opposed sides - both backed by seemingly reputable experts who claim all their research is based on empirical evidence - what are consumers meant to do?

The vilification of fat

In 1983, it was recommended that overall dietary fat consumption should make up only 30 per cent of total daily energy intake – 10 per cent of which, at most, should come from saturated fat.

The recommendations came from a number of research papers published at the time, which suggested a link between saturated fat intake and increased levels of LDL cholesterol – the cholesterol which has been connected to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis.

An even simpler reason for the suggestions boiled down to this: fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates – nine calories per gram versus four, to be exact. This shape to future official guidelines, and gave birth to the low-fat high-carbohydrate mantra. Fat was cemented as public enemy number one.

As a result, the fat eliminated from people’s diets was to be supplemented with an increased intake of carbohydrates. Tipping the scales in favour of carbohydrates were promises of weight loss as a result of higher fibre content, elevated levels of serotonin to aid sleep and boosts in mood from feeling fuller.

But obesity levels continued to soar, and health experts shifted their focus to the next culprit: carbs.

The low-carb era

An analysis by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition combined the results of 21 studies and found that “saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease”. Other studies demonstrated the positive effect on testosterone levels in men from increased saturated fat intake, and have noted increased levels of triglycerides (the stuff that makes you fat) from lower fat diets.

As a result, dieticians developed a deep suspicion of carbs, and sugar in particular, and diets like the Atkins regime became more and more popular.

In part, the report by the National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration uses the research that propped up these low-carb high-fat diets as a means by which to attack the general consensus surrounding healthy eating. Dr Malhotra, who led the latest report, previously worked in a pressure group called Action on Sugar – a group that has tried to get the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar added to food.

The reasoning goes something like this: guidelines encouraging greater carbohydrate consumption are oblivious to the fact that sugars constitute a vast amount of refined carbohydrates. By cranking up the sugar intake we ratchet up the risk of type 2 diabetes; this in turn could spark further health problems including obesity.

The logic seems sound, and yet obesity levels have continued to soar in the face of this research. The notion that all sugar should be avoided also ignores the fact that our brains require a significant amount of glucose for optimal functioning.

Everything in moderation

In the face of an industry that can’t make up its mind about how people should eat, it’s no wonder obesity levels have grown to epidemic proportions. So what can be done?

Professor Susan Jebb, the government’s obesity adviser, believes that the current debate needs to expand beyond the battle between carbohydrates and fat. She said: “We’re eating too many calories – if we want to tackle obesity people do need to eat fewer calories and that means less fat and less sugar.” And she’s right. If decades of research have pointed to anything assertively, it’s that calories count, and paying attention to portion sizes could take us a long way.

Both fat and carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to function. The solution? Enjoy everything in moderation. Eat fruits without fearing fructose, don’t throw away the egg yolk, get a decent amount of protein and yes, you should have your slice of cake too.