Their real women problem

Prospect Magazine

Their real women problem


Conservatives are chasing the wrong votes

The Conservatives should do more to target women from lower middle and upper working class backgrounds

Commentators and politicians are convinced the Conservatives have a problem with women. They do—but not the one they think. The Conservatives spend too much time worrying about women like me—the professional, educated and careerist who form a tiny percentage of the population.

Instead it is the 50 per cent of women that form the lower middle and upper working class (C1 and C2 in polling terms) that should be keeping them up at night. Those women not only supported the Conservatives in 2010, they did so to a much greater extent than men of the same social background. Since then, they have turned their backs.

There are two important facts to understand about women at the last election. First, whereas professional men were more likely to support the Conservatives than the middle and working class, the opposite is true for women. While AB (the most educated and wealthy) women supported the Conservatives by 34 to 29 per cent, C1 women supported the Tories by 39 to 28 per cent, and C2 women by 41 to 25 per cent.

Second, taken together C1 and C2 women were also much more likely to choose the Conservatives than men of the same class. A third of C2 men supported Labour, and a third Conservative. If the Conservatives have anyone to thank for the 2010 election it is these women.

However, as polling provided by Ipsos Mori shows, these same female voters—C1 and C2—have lost faith in the Conservative party. Neither women from professional nor unskilled households have changed their voting intention significantly. In fact the former have become slightly more likely to vote Conservative as the Lib Dem vote share has imploded.

But amongst C1 and C2 women, the Conservatives do have a problem. They have lost a significant share of the vote and it has almost all gone to Labour. C2 women have doubled their likelihood of voting Labour, from 25 to 49 per cent.

This tells the Conservatives three important things. First, they do rely on women for success. Second, women are definitely not a uniform group. They don’t vote in the same way as one another, and women in the middle are moving electorally in the opposite direction from the most and least affluent. Third, the “women problem”—or the dramatic change in voting intention since the general election—is not among professionals.

But the Conservatives do not seem to realise this. They treat women as homogenous—there is a women’s minister and a special adviser who considers how to make policies “women friendly.” Their excessive concern with highly-educated women is also reflected in their worry about females on boards and the percentage of women selected as candidates.

Even when they do recognise policies that affect the majority of women, they are too often specifically “women’s issues”—childcare, or women’s pensions. But there is no evidence that this is why women supported the Conservatives so strongly at the last election, or why they have changed their minds.

What do we know about C1 and C2 households? National statistics tell us they are the classic “squeezed middle”—for whom relatively small changes in income make an enormous difference. We know that they spend significantly more of their income on food and fuel than wealthier families. They have significant transport costs and most will have a car.

They pay tax. They are the most likely group to be angry that benefits are rising at a faster rate than wages, and just as angry at MPs and bankers whom they consider to be ludicrously overpaid and quite possibly criminal. Very high proportions live outside London and the south east. A high proportion of the women will work, but very often part time. They are likely to be the people who do the vast bulk of shopping, managing the house and bringing up children. Their partner’s income will probably be more important than their own.

Their concerns, therefore, have little to do with “being women,” and a lot to do with fairness and making ends meet. Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos Mori, unsurprisingly finds that “C1/C2 women say the economy is the most important issue facing Britain, followed by unemployment—which they’re more likely to mention than ABs,” the professional middle classes.

To reach them, therefore, the Conservatives should have a strategy which is entirely targeted at these issues. It is not about women’s issues—it is about recognising that these women care most about “real world” problems of money and jobs. Anything else is a distraction, and they should ignore every newspaper and blog that tells them otherwise.

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  1. February 5, 2013

    R T

    In this article Rachel claims that Conservatives spend too much time worrying about people like her.

    I disagree. I think they should spend more time worrying about the extent to which they listen to women like her who have no proven ability in anything and give them large amounts of public money and power. They should worry about it until they learn not to do it.

    Of course this comment doesn’t just apply to women. It applies to all political parties in their actions with enthusiastic young people who have yet to be able to command any professional respect.

    I’m also rather concerned as to why Prospect are choosing to employ Rachel. In this article she seems to claim that C1 people are not professional and that C1 and C2 women have few concerns which are associated with them being women and mothers. In general she talks about C1/C2 women as if she’s never met one.

    I do hope my subscription is not paying for this drivel and that Rachel is supplying it for free for the purposes of self promotion. But even if this is the case I would still much rather Prospect published articles written by people who understand the substance of what they’re saying and are not just skimming the surface of an interesting topic in a very naive way.

    • March 6, 2013


      almost got it in one, R.T. Quite right, it’s party politics, who to sell out to get the bucks. who to knock-down to get a high. it’s the name of that game, and that game as clearly been cleared ”time-up”

      • March 7, 2013

        Rebecca Hanson

        Teachers are so actively prevented from commenting about anything in public it’s easy to forget that they are actually people, let alone that many of them are highly experienced and very able post graduate qualified professionals…

        It really would be good if those who decided to redesign the whole of the UK state education system bothered to get to know, let along to consult with any of them.

  2. February 8, 2013


    What a foul comment by R T. There is no substantive comment about about the contents of the article at all. It does not cover any argument it it. It is purely ad hominem. The only comment RT makes about the article itself is that she doubts if Rachel has ever met a C1 or C2 – but gives no evidence for that at all. I cannot see how Rachel is supposed to be naive. What evidence is there?

    The article seems to me a fairly well argued piece about polling statistics and seems persuasive.

  3. February 8, 2013

    Rebecca Hanson

    This site has called me RT. How strange.

    I’m Rebecca Hanson – very easy to find on or through my blogs on education and cyberrhetoric.

    Speaking as a reader who understands modern society and education and who lives very firmly outside the London bubble, I’d like to see more articles in prospect from people who understand my world.

    I was pleased to see Peter Kellner’s article, which a r

  4. February 8, 2013

    Rebecca Hanson

    oh dear – I’ve no idea why that got posted and there doesn’t seem to be an edit facility….

    If this one goes before it’s finished I shall stop.

    Peter Kellner’s article this month gives a decent data analysis but I’d like to see something which gets to grips with the structural issues in education rather than just looking at outcomes.

    Yes, I’m sick of these bright young things who live in the bubble writing about how they think society is outside it. Rachel’s certainly not the only one. If you want to know what the real world is like why don’t you just ask those of us who live in it?

    For a start, in education, we’d talk about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the actions of theses young idiots who are spending state money like water on stupid ideas.

    Back on Rachel’s article in prospect this month. Steve do you think it contains any substantive elements which are worthy of analysis?
    Do you disagree with a particular element of my holitic analysis of it?

  5. February 19, 2013

    Rebecca Hanson

    I came across some of Rachel’s work today and thought it might be worth putting some flesh on the bones of what I was saying.

    Writing garbage like this that you don’t understand is not a victimless crime:

    The economics of education always clearly stated that violent moves towards free markets in education would self-revert at tremendous cost. That’s something which people who work in education understand and it’s also fundamental to the literature on the economics of education as Rachel would have know had she bothered to engage with either.

    So now we have Gove’s policies which have already cost in excess of £1bn and are delivering only mess and chaos (while blocking up the conversations which could have led to good policies being developed) and are leaching money at a rate which will cost more than massive cuts (like those to legal aid) will bring in.

    It’s not okay for people like Rachel to play with the world like it’s a game of SIMS. It isn’t.

  6. February 20, 2013

    Marie Peacock

    Quote: ”A high proportion of the women will work, but very often part time. They are likely to be the people who do the vast bulk of shopping, managing the house and bringing up children. Their partner’s income will probably be more important than their own”

    This is so true in my world anyway. Many women probably voted for Cameron because he used to talk about families and raising children and the work of mothers – as if these were ‘good’ things – and a aluable’ use of time. Not now. Now , all we hear is about non parental care – paid childcare – and the need to make it more affordable and accessible for all and the need to get both parents back in work asap to contribute to the economy and growth (even though many mothers only want to work part time around school hours). Mori surveys and others ( ‘Britain Thinks’ etc) often show that mothers and fathers want more family time , not less. They want balance – they don’t want to be running around like headless chickens spending less and less time raising their families while they scrape together a living to meet the basics. THey want a decent wage for the main earner and decent taxation policies that don’t discriminate against families raising children who have so many more responsibilities time wise and who are investing so much into the next generation- because at the end of the day what matters most to the vast majority of people is ‘family’. These days you can have two families on the same household income living next door to each other – and , somewhat unbelievably , it is the family with children to clothe and house and feed that pays most tax. At the very least it should be the same amount – not more tax. At the very least they should be able to keep more of their earned income, not less. Do we want a family friendly society or not? Do we realise that mothers actually like being mothers and they like taking care of their babies and toddlers and teenagers who often need parent time during the challenging years leading to independence? If someone is working in the family already (whether male or female – it doesn’t have to be a gender issue) then the household is already a productive ‘working household’ for statistical purposes – it doesn’t need to have two people searching for jobs when there’s already plenty to do at home taking good care of the family, whether it’s the elderly or the young ,disabled or vulnerable. Work is not all about paid work – it’s also about caring for others which is hard work and needs more recognition. Most people can do both paid and unpaid work in a lifetime – just not everything all at once!

  7. February 21, 2013

    Rebecca Hanson

    Great comment Marie.

    Prospect – I’d be interested to hear more from commentators like Marie who sound like they actually understand the reality they’re talking about.

    And I’d liketo hear less from those who think mothers of young children will be liberated and fulfilled by having a job in high pressures sales or in an unskilled job where they are bullied which their children are raised by full time nursery care and that they will feel sad, deprived and oppressed if they spend time nurturing and properly raising their children. This is the belief structure which some ABs are trying to impose on the rest of society. But it’s only a few in my experience and most of them grow out of it pretty fast whey they actually are parents. I know plenty of mothers of primary aged children who work full time but few who actually want to. Even Liz Truss might tune into this reality whent the baby/toddler years pass and she becomes more confident as a mother. Let’s hope so!

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Rachel Wolf
Rachel Wolf is the founder of the New Schools Network, an education think-tank 

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