It treats a huge bloc of people living very different lives as though they were a homogenous groupby Jessica Abrahams / March 25, 2015 / Leave a comment
The question of how to appeal to female voters seems to cause trouble every time an election rolls around. It is received wisdom that women are less likely to vote; that they are less concerned with “big picture issues” like the economy and more concerned with their family and household; and that the Tories have a particular problem with them. A concerned David Cameron appointed Laura Trott as a policy advisor on women, the first post of its kind, in 2012, while Labour dispatched a pink campaign bus in February to tour the country “talking to women voters at school gates, in workplaces [and] shopping centres” about “Labour’s commitments to women.” Commentators are asking if women could decide the election.
Women will indeed decide the election, since 52 per cent of UK adults are female. But they don’t vote so differently from men. Instead, the recurrent focus on the “women’s vote” is reflective of the fact that the political sphere is still overwhelmingly male.
Despite Harriet Harman’s recent claim that women are less likely to vote than men, the gap is more or less non-existent: there was a 1 per cent difference in turnout at the general election in 2010, and that narrowed to a 0.1 per cent gender difference in the UK turnout for the European elections last year. Women, however, are more likely to make their mind up closer to polling day. In its summary of February results, Populus found that 22.4 per cent of women say they don’t know who they’ll vote for yet, compared with 10 per cent of men.
This doesn’t explain the fuss surrounding the women’s vote, though. Not only do men and women vote in roughly equal numbers, they also vote in more or less the same way. With the exception of the UK Independence Party, which is much more popular among men, none of the main parties show any significant gender gap. Historically, the Conservatives had an advantage among women. This shifted during the New Labour years and the Labour Party is now considered to be slightly more popular among women. But although the Tories’ much-discussed “women’s problem” might appear in a poll every now and then, it doesn’t play out in any consistent trend. Anthony Wells, director of political and social opinion polling at YouGov, tells me that the situation is closer to a Labour advantage among women than a Tory problem, and only exists clearly within specific age groups.
That begins to get to the crux of the problem with the concept of the “women’s vote”: it treats a huge bloc of people living very different lives as though they were a homogenous group, all wanting the same things. The closer you look at the different groups within it, the more it begins to break down.
Most of the parties’ gender-specific campaigns are based on the assumption that women prioritise different issues from men. Laura Trott, Cameron’s advisor, covers women, childcare and education—three things that are seen as going together. Similarly, Labour’s “woman to woman campaign” is focused on childcare and social care, among a small selection of other issues. Yet in regular YouGov surveys in which voters are asked which issues they consider to be the most important facing the country, both men and women consistently choose the economy, immigration and health as the top priorities. Although women continue to bear the brunt of domestic work, there was only a 3 per cent difference in the proportion of men and women choosing “family life & childcare” as a priority in the latest YouGov poll, undertaken for the Sun in early March. Wildly high childcare costs are a problem for mothers and fathers alike, but will be of little concern to women without dependent children—a majority of adult women in the UK. Often when parties talk about “women’s issues” they really mean parents’ issues.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t things that, overall, have a different impact on women, or on certain groups of them. Women are still more likely to be the primary caregiver in heterosexual families, but the average British mother now has her first child at 30 and 20 per cent of British women never have children, according to the Office for National Statistics; women are both consumers and providers of professional childcare services: it’s a mistake to assume that these issues affect all women in the same way, that women agree on how they should be tackled or, indeed, that they don’t affect men. Sarah Childs, a professor of politics at Bristol University, puts it succinctly: “The political parties see women as a constituency but it’s much more complicated than that… It’s problematic to think of ‘women’s issues’ as being distinct. [But] it is useful to think about how all policies have an impact on men and women if and when they are differently positioned within society.” Or as Labour MP Stella Creasy asked recently, why do we still separate out “women’s issues” instead of more accurately looking at women’s (varied) experiences of issues that effect everyone?
The one thing all women do have in common is that they are vastly underrepresented in politics—so those varied experiences are often not heard. Cameron needs a women’s advisor because only 16 per cent of his party’s MPs are female, and less than a quarter of his Cabinet. There are currently more men in parliament than the total number of female MPs in history.
That is why we hear so much about the “women’s vote”—and nothing at all about its counterpart, the “men’s vote,” even though men are (just) the minority of the electorate. Inherent in the concept of the “women’s vote” is the notion that it is somehow distinct from the “mainstream”: in other words, the mainstream vote is still regarded as male. Politicians are tempted to see women as a single bloc of voters, and parties chase them in separate campaigns, because, nearly a century after enfranchisement, the female vote is still seen as “other.”