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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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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