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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