Monday, 10 October 2011

The Conservatives Have A Fight On Their Hands When It Comes To Women Voters

Progressive Woman Lucy James attended last week’s Conservative Party conference. You can follow Lucy on twitter @lucyjames01

The Conservatives have a “woman problem”.

In order to win a majority in 2015, they need to secure the female vote. But a range of polls have showed that they are losing popularity amongst women. Recently, a leaked internal memo expressed the Party’s growing concerns. It is clear that they are increasingly aware that they need to improve their female appeal.

If the past year of their coalition leadership is anything to go by, they still have some way to go.

Firstly, there have been the cuts. To begin with, the Coalition failed to undertake a gender impact assessment. Women are now disproportionately bearing the financial burden: as childcare costs increase, child tax credits are frozen; women have been hardest hit by pension reform; two thirds of the public sector jobs that have been cut were held by women; the rise in unemployment is higher amongst women than men.

Secondly, they have upset the pro-choice lobby. The majority of people in this country believe in abortion, and as a result it is enshrined in our legal code. But all of sudden the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries was leading the(ultimately unsuccessful) charge for regressive changes to the abortion laws. Even Louise Mensch, one of the newer intake of MPs, admitted that she was ‘pro-life’ and would ban abortion if she thought she would get any public support.

Thirdly, the Conservatives found themselves unnecessarily knee deep in issues around rape. Ken Clarke got his words seriously wrong as he tried to differentiate between the varying degrees of ‘seriousness’ of rape; Crispin Blunt tried to argue that defendants of rape charges deserved anonymity, whilst those accused of other crimes did not.

As a result, women’s groups have been increasingly confronting the coalition Government
It was therefore particularly poignant that, before the conference even started, David Cameron was apologizing for telling Angela Eagle to ‘calm down dear’ during a debate in the commons.

The need was clearly there for the Conservatives to make extra efforts to reach out to female voters during their conference. And so it came as a surprise that the conference was largely silent on issues around women.

In fact, the most extensive discussion took place on BBC Newsnight, where the audience was made up of 70 female Conservatives all of whom were adamant that the party was female-friendly. It was an eye-opening twenty minutes.

On the one hand, there was some fresh and constructive discussion. One female MP said that the Conservative policy was to open up opportunities for women, rather than just transfer wealth. She admitted that “we haven’t focused enough on talking about some of our positive policies” and briefly mentioned some of their policies.

But on the other hand, pearl-wearing ladies were describing women as “doing the shopping and paying the bills, filling up the family cars”. This sort of language, and these sorts of images, is the reason why the Conservatives too often come across as out of touch with the needs of a lot of women.

If female Conservatives really feel that their party is women-friendly then they need to start making the case for women. They desperately need to begin communicating, and iron out these conflicting messages.

If they really believe that their policies, such as tax breaks and paternity leave, are designed to help women, they need to be telling the women who will be affected.

They need to stop talking about women simply in terms of their role in the family. And when they do, they need to explain what their emphasis on ‘family’ implies for female progress – outside of the home and outside of ‘traditional’ family life.

They need to remember the women in the lower strata of society who are being hardest hit by the Government cuts, and use messages that appeal to them too.

And it must be women who are at the forefront of these communications. More female MPs and ministers, from different backgrounds, need to be put forward as spokespeople. Despite increasing the number of female MPs, Cameron failed to stand up to his promise of giving a third of senior government jobs to women. This imbalance needs to be rectified and reflected in the party’s public face.

And, obviously, they need to stop making spur-of-the-moment blunders.

When Cameron apologized for his recent remarks, he said: “It’s my fault. I’ve got to do better, I totally accept. I’m the one who’s got to explain who I am and what I’m like and what I think.” These sentiments are right. However, they must not to be limited to the party’s leader, but extended to the party as a whole.

Last week, Labour raised the stakes further as Ed Miliband promoted more female MPs so that there are now 11 women in their shadow cabinet.

If the Conservatives want to succeed in winning over female voters, they clearly have a fight on their hands. It is only if they succeed in winning that fight that they will be able to secure the female vote and a majority in the next Parliament.

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