We often get asked about the women’s vote, and whether women could decide the result of the General Election. I never feel entirely comfortable answering, even though “some of my best friends are women.” There are rich women, poor women, old, young, northern, southern, black, white, married, divorced, single women and they don’t all vote the same way. I have never been asked about the men’s vote.
History does though point to the fact that the Conservatives have traditionally performed better among female voters than male voters, in the same way that they have done better among older voters than younger ones.
However, that tradition has been on the wane over the last few decades, and in fact it was the 2005 General Election which saw the turning point for the Tories doing better among men than women. Ascribing the “women problem” solely to David Cameron was unfair, although he has not been successful in turning things around. And I have never heard commentators discussing Ed Miliband’s “men problem”.
Our own poll of 1,000 women for the Sunday Mirror this weekend showed Labour leading the Conservatives by 5 points among this half of the population, despite the race being too close to call more widely.
This Election campaign has seen not only Labour’s pink bus but also a specific “women’s manifesto”. Though their execution may have been clumsy, the aim has clearly been to directly and obviously engage with this half of the electorate, three in ten of whom (29%) feel ignored by political parties.
Things are changing, and political parties can’t simply rely on what they used to know to be true. Within the female electorate there are some clear differences, most notably between generations. Women aged 55 and over are more likely to say they will vote for the Conservatives, while those aged 18-54 are more likely to say they will vote for Labour, again pointing to a longer term decline in the tradition of Conservative women.
Not only are there differences in how they will vote, but the generations differ on how they see themselves and the role of women in politics. While three in four (74%) younger women believe there aren’t enough women in politics, significantly fewer (62%) of the older generation agree.
Indeed, different age groups even see their position relative to men differently, with younger women being significantly less likely than their older counterparts to believe the two sexes have different priorities (24% of 18-24 year olds compared to 58% of those aged 65+). This in itself opens up questions about the way the campaigns target women and whether the pink bus will be effective with younger women.
It would though be flippant to suggest that men and women have exactly the same priorities. Our polling reveals some consistent differences on the issues, with women tend to give greater priority to issues such as the NHS and cost of living. These issues also tend to be strong areas of focus for Labour and so perhaps it is no wonder that Labour lead among the female bloc.
A challenge to our representative democracy is that almost half (46%) of women think that male politicians can never fully represent the best interests of women, leaving plenty of questions about how to increase the number of female MPs – but that’s for another Pollwatch perhaps, though just 14% of all Britons say that it is right to use positive discrimination to increase the number of women MPs in Parliament.
GE2015 has seen a dearth of silver bullet demographics, we’ve not had Worcester Woman or Mondeo Man, but “women” can’t fill just fill that void. Being 50% of the electorate makes them an important demographic to woo, and one clearly where Labour are having slightly more success than the Tories. But it won’t be enough on its own, a party needs more than just women or just the working classes or any other group. Women could decide the result of the election, if they all turned out and all voted en bloc. They don’t. The parties need to tailor their messages accordingly, in this election and beyond.