The Prime Minister greets his "woman problem". Photo: Getty
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Does David Cameron have a "woman problem"?

Yvette Cooper makes great play of David Cameron's "woman problem", but it's Labour's "man problem" she should be worried about.

Yvette Cooper – increasingly regarded as the frontrunner for the Labour leadership – has a neat applause line about David Cameron having a “woman problem”. 

It’s smart politics: it references an achievement around which a majority of Labour activists can agree is a Good Thing (increasing the number of women MPs), reminds people of one of Cameron’s worst performances in the House of Commons (the “Calm down, dear” jibe at Angela Eagle), and strengthens her case to be elected Labour leader. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong.

In 1992, Labour were defeated by women, who preferred John Major to Neil Kinnock by a ten-point margin. If women had been the only voters, the Conservatives would have a majority of over 70, against a mere 20 on the night. In 1997, under Tony Blair, the party led by 12 points among women – still slightly smaller than the 14-point lead among men. In 2001 Labour performed equally well among women voters as it did with men.  

But by the time of Blair’s third election victory, the process had gone into reverse. Labour started to do disproportionately badly among male voters. If men had been the only voters, Labour and the Conservatives would have been level on votes, with 34 per cent apiece, although Labour would have remained comfortably ahead in terms of seats. Among women, however, the party had a six point lead, 38 per cent to 32 per cent.

Worse was to come:  in 2010, the Conservatives had a ten-point lead among men, enough to put them in office.  Women, however, backed Labour by 31 per cent to 36 per cent. In 2015, Labour again underperformed among men, achieving just 30 per cent of the vote.

Labour can’t even be said to be doing particularly well among all women; the over 55s opted for the Conservatives by an even bigger margin than their male peers (45 per cent to 27 per cent, against 40 per cent to 25 per cent among men).

That’s not to say that it would be a bad idea for Labour to pick a woman as leader. After all, the party’s forward strides among female voters occurred with a male leader – and the collapse with male voters in 2005, 2010, 2015 occured under three leaders who were all men. But it is to say that if Labour wraps itself in comforting slogans about Cameron’s “woman problem”, it will lose the 2020 election.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.