Why is the female vote so crucial to the outcome of the election?

9 Feb 2015

Since 2010, Britain has seen both enhanced digital political engagement and increased engagement with gender equality and the issues around it.


Campaigns such as No More Page Three and speeches like Emma Watson’s impassioned #HeForShe launch have regularly hit the headlines, and highlighted longstanding inequalities within our society and rejuvenated political debate, particularly amongst young people previously disengaged with such issues.


A recent TNS/BBC poll suggested that a third of women have not yet made their mind up which party to vote for and around half of the women surveyed in the same poll said that they did not believe that party leaders understood what life was like for them and their families.


9.1 million women did not vote in the last election, so all of the parties have their work cut out to win the female vote and re-engage women with politics. Going into the election, a strong stance on gender equality and policies which appeal to women are a must for any party serious about getting into government, such is the significance of the female vote.


What are the main parties doing to win it?


The Conservatives arguably have the biggest struggle. With just five out of the 22 ministers in the Cabinet being women, David Cameron’s women problem is far from solved in spite of his latest reshuffle. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that women have suffered more than men as a result of the Tories’ cuts to welfare and public services, and there seems little progress on this front ahead of the election.


Labour meanwhile have recognised that women may well be the Tories’ Achilles’ Heel, and plan to push hard next month with a campaign aiming at listening to women’s experiences, dubbed ‘Woman to woman’. Deputy Leader Harriet Harman and Shadow Women and Equalities Minister Gloria de Piero – both of whom openly identify as feminists, will take the lead.


The Lib Dems currently have just seven female MPs and there have been warning signs for some months that all of those could lose their seats after May. Yet, with Nick Clegg himself and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander in danger of suffering the same fate, women are unlikely to be the Lib Dems’ top priority at the moment.


The party has garnered little female support following the scandal of Lord Rennard’s alleged sexual harassment, with Clegg having failed to promote a single woman to the Cabinet after four and half years in government, it is hard to see the Lib Dems improving their standing with women between now and the election.


What about UKIP and the Greens?


UKIP are even worse off than the Lib Dems as far as the female vote is concerned, with the party’s “blokey” reputation a major turn-off (the ‘Women Against UKIP’ Facebook page has over 17,000 likes), as well as previous comments on women by leader Nigel Farage and former MEP Godfrey Bloom fuelling a negative perception of the party. UKIP have their hands full trying to convince Britain that they are not “just a party for retired half-colonels,” as Nigel Farage himself once put it.


The Greens have a better track record – they have a strong female leader in Natalie Bennett, their sole MP Caroline Lucas is a woman, two out of their three recently elected MEPs are women, and they have been campaigning strongly on issues such as gay and lesbian rights. As a result, their support amongst younger women at university has only increased.


Their only problem when it comes to winning the female vote is that their approach may be seen as too soft and liberal, with the stereotype of the average Green supporter as a Guardian-reading, organic soya milk-drinking, middle-class university graduate. Broadly however, the Greens’ popularity with women is one of several ways in which they are a serious threat to Labour’s hopes of a majority.


What policy areas should the parties be focussing on to win the female vote?


Recent polls suggest that the top priority for women up and down the country is the NHS, followed by the cost of living and family issues.


Yet the NHS is not simply the most important issue for women, the TNS-BMRB poll also found that it is the top issue for 55% of men in comparison to 59% of women, raising the question of whether “womens’ issues” is a legitimate policy area, or if it is simply a patronising throwaway term used by male-dominated parties keen to show that they are ‘on the case’ with gender equality.


In the context of polling data, it is also important to consider the demographics being surveyed. While the TNS-BMRB data suggests that the NHS is the top priority for both men and women ahead of the election, a recent YouGov poll of working class men and women has immigration as the top priority.


What perception do women have of the party leaders?


It would be stretching it somewhat to say that the Prime Minister was ‘popular’ with women, but at any rate, he’s more popular with them than Ed Miliband. An ICM poll in October 2014 found that 31% of women were of the opinion that he would make a good Prime Minister, compared to 12% who backed the Labour leader.


Ed Miliband’s image problem continues to be an issue for Labour and threatens to derail their hopes of securing the female vote. Thus, delegating this drive to the highly capable Harman and rising star De Piero is a smart move.


Polls have suggested that Nick Clegg has the best ‘doorstep manner’ in the eyes of women but that they also feel he is ‘untrustworthy’, while Nigel Farage, unsurprisingly, is on a hiding to nothing with women. Interestingly, there is little data available on Natalie Bennett’s popularity with women, although support for her being invited to the Party Leaders’ Debates was highest amongst people aged 35-44 and amongst women.


Looking ahead, 44% of women have said they think Home Secretary Theresa May would make a good future Tory leader, considerably more than men, while her opposite number, Yvette Cooper, polled slightly worse with 38% backing her as a future Labour leader.


What’s the state of play at the moment?


Essentially, Labour are in a better position to win the female vote than the Tories as all the polls suggests that Labour’s election narrative fits the issues which matter most to women like a glove, with all the party’s rhetoric over the last few months focusing on the NHS and the cost of living. Women also back them to deliver on these issues, with 20% believing they understand family issues, a four point lead over the Tories.


Although David Cameron is more popular with women than Ed Miliband at the moment, there is fair reason to believe that a significant proportion of the women who will vote Conservative will do so in the hope that Theresa May is Cameron’s successor as leader and, potentially, Prime Minister, rather than any belief they might have in his policies.


The Tories are not popular with women, but that’s not the only area they are struggling in. The focus on London and the private sector has cost the party dear, with dwindling support in the north of England and amongst young people, the latter exacerbated by Cameron’s pulling out of the #LeadersLive debates, being the only party leader not to take part.


UKIP and the Lib Dems are in the same boat in the sense that they both might as well forget about pulling in the female vote, but UKIP are in the stronger position and would do well to concentrate on their appeal to working class men in the 25-40 age bracket.


The Greens meanwhile are Labour’s only serious stumbling block to gaining the lion’s share of the female vote, and they are gaining considerable support from younger women. However, this is once again a social class issue and the party’s perception as too touchy-feely and only appealing to middle-class voters may well hold them back.


Despite all their campaigning efforts on gender equality and gay and lesbian rights, they have struggled to win support from working class women, and the Greens could fall at this final hurdle in May, giving  Labour a golden chance to capitalise on the female vote and take a huge step back towards No. 10 in May.

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