Leader: David Cameron’s problem with women

On issues from public-service reform to benefits to rape, the government has shown itself to be tone

David Cameron launched the Conservative party conference by apologising to women, or, more specifically, to two women. The Prime Minister said he was sorry for telling the Labour MP Angela Eagle to "calm down, dear" during a debate in the Commons in April, and that he had not intended to cause offence when he said last month that the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries was "very frustrated" (a remark that had prompted juvenile guffaws from MPs).

Mr Cameron's decision to apologise was based on sound political logic. The Tories' disproportionately low support among women prevented them from winning a majority at the last general election and could deny them one at the next. Among men, the party led Labour by 10 points at the last election but among women it led by just 4. The situation has since grown worse. An Ipsos MORI poll published on 14 September found that support for the Conservatives among women had slumped to 29 per cent, compared to 38 per cent among men. Worse for the Tories, a New Statesman/ICD poll published on 4 October found that just 35 per cent of women "would consider" voting for the Conservatives at the next election and that 65 per cent would not.

Yet while the Prime Minister was right to apologise, he did so for the wrong reasons. His condescending belief that the problem is merely one of presentation exemplified precisely why so many women feel unable to support his government. As Yvette Cooper, Labour's shadow minister for women, observed: "Women are angry about what the government is doing, not what it is saying."

One should always be wary of generalities about a particular section of the electorate (who ever refers to the "men's vote"?) but it is not hard to identify the source of women's discontent. The decision to cut further and faster than in any other major economy has hit them hardest. Over the past year, 240,000 public-sector jobs have been lost, three times as many as the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted. As a result, unemployment among women, who account for 65 per cent of the public-sector workforce, has reached 1.06 million, the highest figure since records began in 1988.

An unusual number of the coalition's austerity measures - the abolition of baby bonds, the three-year freeze in child benefit, the abolition of the health in maternity grant, the withdrawal of child tax credits - penalise women and families. In addition, as the New Statesman's George Eaton reported in July, Mr Cameron has broken his promise to protect Sure Start, a service on which many families, particularly the most vulnerable, depend.

Then there is Chancellor George Osborne's plan to withdraw child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers, a move that amounts to an average tax increase of £1,750 a year (£1,000 for the first child and £750 for each subsequent child) for the families affected, and disproportionately penalises single-earner households. Though all households in which at least one person earns £44,000 or more will lose out, a family with two adults each earning £40,000 a year will not.

That these policies are being delivered by a government that is overwhelmingly male both reflects and reinforces the problem. Of the 29 ministers who attend cabinet, just four are women and only one, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, holds a prominent position. There was a time when Mr Cameron believed a gender-balanced cabinet was essential for informed policymaking. In 2005, he argued: "If you put eight Conservative men round a table and ask them to discuss what should be done about pensions, you'd get some good answers . . . but what you are less likely to get is a powerful insight into the massive unfairness relating to women's pensions. We need people from diverse backgrounds to inform everything we do."

However, Mr Cameron leads a government whose pension reforms will hit women hardest. The decision to raise the female state pension age to 65 means that half a million women in their late fifties will be required to work for up to two years longer than expected. Ministers have consistently promised to bring forward "transitional arrangements" to help those most affected, but the details remain unknown.

On issues from public-service reform to benefits to rape (ministers proposed granting anonymity to defendants), the government has shown itself to be tone-deaf to women's concerns. Mr Cameron's decision to rely so heavily on spending cuts rather than tax rises to reduce the deficit makes it inevitable that women, the largest users of public services, will suffer most. Without a change of course, the likelihood is that he will be forced to offer many more apologies.

This article first appeared in the 10 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The next great depression