The Tories' problem with women

Peter KellnerPresident
October 10, 2011, 4:05 PM GMT+0

Parties really need to 'mean it' to convince women that they are on their side, says Peter Kellner, as David Cameron apologises for 'sexism' in the commons

While serious folk were worrying about the Eurozone, and those who prefer personality politics were following Liam Fox’s troubles, David Cameron tried last week to change the culture of British politics. In an attempt to revive women’s faith in the Conservatives, he apologised for apparently sexist remarks in the Commons and promised more family-friendly policies.

At one level, the Prime Minister seems to have little reason to worry. Recent YouGov polls have shown Tory support among women to be at least as high as among men. But at another level, he is right to fear choppy waters ahead. Most of the jobs being lost in the public sector are women’s jobs. Women – especially mothers and carers – are most likely to notice any reduction in front-line services. And, despite Mr Cameron’s efforts to boost the number of women MPs, the Tories (up from 17 out of 198 in 2005, to 49 out of 307 last year) still have far fewer than Labour (81 out of 258).

In our latest poll for the Sunday Times, YouGov explored public attitudes to such issues. This is what more than 1,300 women told us:

  • None of the main party leaders are thought to ‘understand the concerns of women voters'
  • 35% regard Cameron as the greatest male chauvinist of the three leaders. Only 5% apply that label to Ed Miliband and 2% to Nick Clegg
  • 25% think Labour has the most family-friendly policies, compared with 18% for the Conservatives and 8% for the Lib Dems. Fully 49% say either ‘none of them’ or ‘don’t know’
  • When specific issues are tested, such as health, education and child benefit, Labour scores better than the Tories – but still not especially well
  • So far, two in three women think both sexes have been equally hit by the recession and public spending cuts; but most of the rest think women have been hit harder
  • According to a separate YouGov survey last week, a gender gap has opened up on the way the Government is cutting spending. We asked: ‘Thinking about the way the Government is cutting spending to reduce the Government's deficit, do you think this is being done fairly or unfairly’. Men say: fairly, 35%, unfairly 55%; women say: fairly 24%, unfairly 59%

There is little comfort in those figures for Cameron – but not much more for Miliband or Clegg. This helps to explain why the Tories are as popular among women as among men.

There is, however, a deeper point. It's wrong to think that men and women generally think differently. On most things, including voting behaviour, they are remarkably similar. The most consistent exception is war, with men invariably more pro-war than women in any given situation, such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. In terms of domestic policies, the gender gap on the spending cuts is unusual.

Would a party win more votes with women-friendly policies such as child care tax allowances? I doubt it, unless they are part of a much larger cultural change. With rare exceptions, new policies work only when they change a party's wider reputation. Despite Cameron's best efforts, the Tories are seen as representing the better off, not everyone ‒ and its male image is part of that reputation. If one or two ‘pro-women’ and ‘family-friendly’ policies are seen as a sop, rather than a change of heart, they will do the Tories no good. They might even be counter-productive, and lose votes, if voters regard these policies as cynical ploys.

For the Tories to gain a real family-friendly reputation, they need to act on a number of fronts ‒ including the way the party in parliament looks ‒ and, crucially, they must persuade voters that theirs is a genuine conversion to a new political approach. In short, they must not only come up with the right policies, they must persuade voters that they mean it when they say they are pro-women. What matters is not so much the policy details as a perception by voters that the party that their professed change of heart is for real. Authenticity is the key.