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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