The voter changes her mind

Women have traditionally voted Tory. Now, they're turning to new Labour. But can Tony Blair hold their allegiance? Helen Wilkinson decodes new surveys that might hold the answer
Click to follow
It is a hard fact for feminists to swallow and one that might have horrified some of the suffragettes. But if the electorate had only been made up of women, the Conservatives would have been in power continuously since the Second World War. This bias to the right - which gave the Tories a 9 per cent lead among women at the last election - has been one of the hidden constants of British politics.

But if recent polls are to be believed, the Tories are not only losing their lead among women, they are also seeing a catastrophic fall of support among young women, who may well carry their antipathy to the Tories throughout their life.

New data published today by Demos and the Fawcett Society shows just how much ground the Tories have lost. An analysis of MORI's poll data shows that of those women who have decided how they are going to vote in the next general election, only 31 per cent intend to vote Conservative, compared with 51 per cent for Labour. While the Tories can take some comfort from the fact that Tony Blair's satisfaction rating among women has fallen dramatically in the past six months - from plus 23 to plus 2 - John Major remains overwhelmingly unpopular among women, with a rating of minus 29.

But it is the generational shift that is most stark. If you analyse the party's support across each age group, support for Labour and the Tories among men is roughly constant. Among women, by contrast, there is a massive skew, with young women overwhelmingly supporting Labour, by 68 per cent to 18 per cent, compared with a Labour lead of only 5 per cent in the oldest age group.

In the short run this may not be as serious as it looks. There are far more women over 55 than in the 18 to 24 band - indeed they account for nearly a fifth of the whole electorate. But in the long run, it suggests that the Tories may have lost the capacity to reproduce their support. With only a few months to go before the general election, the Tories' secret weapon has ceased working.

Many explanations have been offered for the Tories traditional advantage among women. Although women tend to be more concerned with issues that might be deemed natural territory for Labour - like health and education - at a deeper level the Conservatives may have better exemplified women's values: their concerns for reliability and security, stable communities and strong families.

This identification has not only won the Tories millions of votes over the years, it has also attracted into the party thousands of activists, modern equivalents of the Primrose League, which at the beginning of this century was one of the most effective of all mass movements. At the top, power may have been held by the men, but the Conservatives could nevertheless make a genuine claim to be a more feminised party than a Labour Party steeped in a macho trade union culture.

What has changed? For older women, there is undoubtedly a sense of betrayal. Despite the Conservatives' rhetoric of family values, strong communities and its promise to be the party of law and order, the reality is that they have governed a country which now has one of the highest divorce rates in Europe, high levels of crime and a pervasive sense that public spaces are no longer safe.

But it's also that the Tories have failed to address the fears of many older women over pensions and long-term care: the latter has been a conspicuous failure, with earlier promises to come up with a bold new policy now apparently on ice. Older women are also heavily reliant on the NHS and on local transport services, particularly buses - neither a glowing success story for the Tories.

Meanwhile, new Labour has clearly identified older women as a key swing group. Tessa Jowell, former opposition spokesperson for women, led an effective campaign visiting women's institutes and listening to older women's concerns. Blair's incursions into enemy territory - law and order, family values and strong communities - have not just been an explicit attempt to woo middle England and Ford Sierra man. They have also been sending reassuring signals to older generations of women that Labour is now the party of security and reliability.

But the more fundamental problem for the Tories is that they have failed to keep up with the changing lives of a younger generation of women. My research clearly shows that young women today are more oriented to success than their parents, and significantly more feminist in their values, even if they often do not adopt the label. Many are not just working to earn money but are busy carving out careers.

Ironically, the very success of Margaret Thatcher in offering a role model of female achievement has encouraged a generation of women to reject the older Tory assumption that women should sit quietly in the background, devoting themselves to their homes and children. High-profile role models such as Body Shop's Anita Roddick, the city high-flyer Carol Galley and Debbie Moore of Pineapple show that it is possible for a woman to succeed in the business world. Cherie Blair, too, shows that it is possible to successfully combine career and motherhood as well demonstrating that there is nothing to stop a professional woman from earning more than her husband. And high-profile Labour-supporting women, including the actress Juliet Stevenson and the style guru Barbara Follett, make clear the identification of success and new Labour.

Instead of harnessing these ambitions, the Tories have been sending contrary signals. The rhetoric of back to basics seemed to suggest that the Tories wanted to put women back in the kitchen, rather than celebrating the feminisation of the economy which they had presided over. Worse, the party itself has consistently failed to select women candidates in reasonable numbers and to promote women to the upper reaches of the party, an issue that is now causing discontent in the ranks of Tory women. Conservative Central Office under the stewardship of vice-chair Dame Angela Rumbold was reported some months back to be encouraging local associations to look kindly on female candidates to increase women's visibility in the party, but so far it appears to have had little success.

Labour has better understood the importance of these underlying shifts in the power of men and women. However crude and unpopular quotas have been, they did prove extraordinarily effective at changing the party's complexion. After the next election almost a third of the Parliamentary Labour Party is likely to be women, whereas the Tories may end up with fewer women than they have now.

But the real failing of the Conservatives is one of political strategy. Unlike the other parties, the Conservatives have been reluctant to champion women's issues and have failed to adequately develop policies for working women. The costs of this are fast becoming apparent. Child care is clearly a vote winner for many women as are other issues - such as low pay, part- time work, the long-hours culture and the need to balance work and family life. Elsewhere, politicians who have addressed these issues have won great dividends. President Clinton, for example, made a direct appeal to working women in his first presidential election campaign. He promised some family leave and put together a package of policies that would benefit working women. They subsequently rewarded him with their votes. In his second campaign, he has gone a step further, expanding parental and family leave and offering more policies for working women. (For the past six months at least the President's support among women has been much greater than among men, between 10 to 20 percentage points depending upon the poll, leaving Dole out in the cold as far as women are concerned.) Here in Britain, Labour and Liberal Democrats have taken the lesson to heart by making policy commitments to parental leave and affordable child care.

The danger for the Tories is that they increasingly look old and out of touch, unable to attract a younger generation either to vote or to join, let alone to opt for a political career. A recent study of the membership found that the average age of a Conservative member is now 61. More than half are over 65, and only 5 per cent are under 35. Meanwhile, Labour under Tony Blair has transformed itself from an ageing to a more youthful party. The majority of new members are under 40, and at last week's conference it was striking that many delegates were there for the first time ever.

You might expect the Tories to be panicking. But instead one senses a certain complacency, an assumption that the Conservatives will naturally remain the party of women. The weight in the electorate of older women, still attached to more traditional values, may encourage this complacency. But the failure to recognise that Thatcher's Children - the generation of women brought up under Conservative rule who expect equality with men as a matter of course, and have clear needs and priorities which are not being addressed - must be unwise in the long term, not least because most people take their party allegiance with them throughout their life. Just as in the late Seventies Labour neglected its working-class base and lost power for a generation, so in the Nineties it may be that the Conservatives are being similarly negligent with their base among women voters.

But other parties should also be wary of complacency. Women are not impressed by often conflicting messages that come from other leaders' mouths.

When Paddy Ashdown (who, incidentally, is the least liked party leader among women) launched the Liberal Democrat policy statement on women the Sunday before his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference, he told his audience that it was the most important document that week. Two days later he failed to even mention it in his conference speech. A week later Tony Blair had the potential to connect with many women's frustrated ambitions in his call for an "age of achievement" - but the great majority of his examples and his metaphors (including the football imagery of "Labour coming home") were male.

Women are politically promiscuous. Almost a quarter have not yet decided how they'll vote in the next election. And all the evidence shows that while many women don't make up their minds until the very last moment, in part because they are more cautious about their choices than men, they turn out to vote in greater numbers.

For this reason, the Tories' challenge is to take the other parties on with practical policies that will celebrate and consolidate the dawning of an "age of achievement" for women that they have presided over, and which has brought unprecedented numbers of women into the professions, into business, and into higher education.

Helen Wilkinson is a project director at Demos. She will be speaking at lunchtime today at a fringe meeting on Winning Women's Votes in Bournemouth.