Girl power

David Cameron's drive to attract women voters is misconceived
December 20, 2008

Few things grate more with me than advertising executives telling women that they know what women want. David Cameron, however, seems to think differently. Keen to make himself more attractive to female voters, he has hired Pretty Little Head, a "strategic consultancy," to help.

The firm claims to base its analysis on "the scientific study of gender difference." But this seems to amount to the usual sweeping statements about men liking systems and women preferring empathy. No mention is made of politics. Instead, drawing heavily on the ideas of John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Pretty Little Head explains how "men are driven by the Achievement Impulse." Women, by contrast, want "an environment in which they and their offspring? feel safe." The future of progressive conservatism this is not.

To be fair, seeking political gender advice is not new. Al Gore famously paid feminist Naomi Wolf thousands of dollars a month to advise him in a much derided (and largely failed) attempt to gain alpha male status. Her advice? Speak aggressively and change the colour of your clothes. American women, apparently, liked loud mouths in earth tones. To his credit, at least Cameron seems sufficiently confident to avoid machismo, and to hire an organisation that at least appears to take social science seriously.

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The trouble, though, is that political parties tend to think of women as a homogeneous group. Even worse, when they say "women" they almost always mean "mothers." So women's issues quickly become political shorthand for childcare and education. And while it is true that women, on average, rate issues like healthcare more highly than men, this tells only half the story.

Take the 9m women over 55, a group who could easily swing the next election. A 2004 Fawcett Society and Age Concern report found that their priorities were quite different to those of women 20 years their junior. They were more politically engaged, and more likely to be undecided voters.

Cameron's problem is that women—young or old—are every bit as different from each other as men are from other men. The best evidence suggests that gender is less important in deciding voter preference than age, class or family circumstances. And you shouldn't need a consultant to know that a professional, childless female Londoner shares little in common with a jobless single mother from Rotherham.

Nancy Astor, the first woman to take a seat in parliament, understood this well enough. The journalist Yvonne Roberts, writing during a now forgotten Labour drive to tart itself up for the ladies, quoted her arguing against men who feared that enfranchised females would immediately form a new women's party. "We could not do it," she said. "We women disagree just as much as the men." Quite right.

It's all very odd. Male politicians feel the need to pose for women, but never say a word about winning over their natural constituency: the "male vote." Perhaps they should. Research into voter volatility by Fawcett and Ipsos Mori in 2007 found that male voters make bigger switches of allegiance.

Maybe Cameron should seek out a Pretty Little Head equivalent for men. It could be called something equally silly, like "The Vital Organ." That's the brain, of course; an asset that politicians would do well to realise men and women alike are quite capable of using.