Given the current political turbulence, few things seem certain this party conference season (except, of course, that livers will be damaged, gossip spread and affairs conducted in faceless hotel rooms). Just one other indisputable fact has recently emerged, though. Whatever else politicians plan to do, they desperately need to re-engage with the female electorate.
A poll carried out by the Fawcett Society/ Ipsos MORI this month shows that women’s overall engagement with politics has plummeted this year. This is highly significant, because usually it is women’s voting patterns that decide elections. While men more often than not vote for the same party time after time (it’s estimated that if women had never won the vote, Labour would have been continuously in government since 1945), the women’s vote is much more likely to swing. A greater proportion of women than men backed the Conservatives in 1992, for instance, and, come 1997, it was an 11 per cent swing in the women’s vote that enabled Tony Blair and his party to secure power. (Holding that particular advantage has allowed them to win the two elections since.)
Hence the soul-searching. While 38 per cent of women voted Labour at the 2005 general election, their support now stands at 33 per cent (men’s support having remained steady, at 34 per cent). And although some of these women’s votes have been picked up by the Conservative Party, the Tories can’t rest easy either. The poll shows that, among women, support for the Conservatives remains lower than it is among men, at 36 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively. More worryingly for the Conservatives, David Cameron’s reputed popularity with the ladies – seen as the party’s silver bullet – may well be a myth. For all his informal style and windswept bike riding, just 28 per cent of women are satisfied with Cameron’s leadership, compared to 34 per cent of men.
The only party that still polls higher levels of support among women than men (22 per cent to 18 per cent) is the Liberal Democrats, but they have lost votes overall since 2005 and their most enthusiastic constituency – young voters – is the least likely to get out of bed on polling day.
So, why exactly have women become so disenchanted? Clearly an important factor, and certainly the one that appears to have had most effect on the Labour poll results, is the present uncertain ty and wrangling over the leadership. Women are often accused of being put off by “macho” political debate, but apparently the more nuanced reality is that we’re simply put off by any behaviour that seems inimical to delivering effective government.
“Women are less concerned about the political process than delivery,” confirms Dr Katherine Rake, director of the Fawcett Society, “so all the recent political scandals and the leadership kerfuffle have been a huge turn-off.”
Deborah Mattinson, joint chief executive of the political research and consultation firm Opinion Leader Research, agrees. “It may sound old-fashioned,” she says, “but I think that women especially are looking for politicians to be public servants. They really don’t like it when public office seems to be used for personal gain, be it getting a directorship at some City firm, or freebie holidays.” That is to say, women’s focus is on strong, straightforward policies, which is where David Cameron may be falling short. Even though he has avoided the aggressive style that women so dislike – choosing instead to ape Tony Blair’s mid-1990s strategy (casual clothes, casual demeanour, effusive smiles) – our main impression of him still pivots largely around his image, rather than his policies.
“My focus groups over the summer have been saying that, on the plus side, he’s new and different,” says Mattinson, “but on the downside . . . [he] doesn’t seem authentic. He’s very vague and they don’t know what he stands for, apart from the fact that he’s posh. It’s very hard in politics to get messages to stick, and I think the problem is that he’s been energetic on so many fronts. People are worried about his inexperience, too. Do women – especially older women, who are particularly anxious – really want to see him steer the country through this rather difficult phase?”
So what can the parties do to win women back? Clearly, for Labour, it would be beneficial to deal with its leadership wrangles cleanly, effectively . . . and soon. “I think that women probably just want the transfer to happen now,” says Mattinson. “That said, I don’t think they’d like to see Blair hustled out in a humiliating way. That kind of politics doesn’t help.”
Are there any areas, outside of the usual list (the economy, public services, immigration) that would prove a sure-fire hit with women? Rake cites the cross-party talk about work/life balance and general well-being as a potential vote-winner, but notes that “the policy isn’t really there. It’s all just warm words at the moment. That’s true of the pay gap, too. That’s still a huge problem, but there aren’t really any solid commitments being made to eradicate it.”
Eyes on the deputy leader
Yet another area where there is a great deal of positive talk, but not quite so much action, is women’s representation. Women still make up less than 20 per cent of all MPs, with the UK ranking 54th in the world in this respect, behind Iraq, Afghanistan and Rwanda. And although British women tend not to favour positive discrimination (all-women shortlists and so on), studies show that constituencies that field a female candidate attract the usual turnout among men, but a 4 per cent higher turnout among women – a small, but highly significant, bonus.
“I don’t think that representation is the central issue for women,” says Rake, “but it’s intrinsically tied up with all the other issues, and the paucity of women MPs adds to women’s general sense of disengagement. If you don’t see yourself reflected in political debate then you’re clearly much less likely to engage with it.
“When it comes to both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, there seem, again, to be a lot of warm words regarding women’s representation, but these mean very little if men are still landing the safe seats and the people walking into the House of Commons after an election don’t reflect the voters.” For Labour this may also be an issue in the contest for the deputy leadership: Harriet Harman or – perhaps – Tessa Jowell would make a difference to the gender balance at the top of the party.
The crux, it would appear, is honesty. Women don’t appreciate shadowy deals being brokered in the halls of power, we don’t like politicians trying to sell us image over substance, and we don’t respond well to being promised advances for women – in pay, childcare and representation – that are never delivered. All we actually want from politicians is what they’re actually supposed to be there for: to deliver efficient government. “Being honest matters,” says Mattinson, “and politicians should under-promise and over-deliver, rather than the other way around.” But whoever heard of anyone under-promising during conference season?
Kira Cochrane is the Guardian women’s editor