David Cameron has a women problem

Poll after poll shows they are deserting the Tories, and when interviewed by Red magazine, the PM managed to shoot himself in the foot

Click to follow
The Independent Online

David Cameron has a big task this week – to win back the 50 per cent of the electorate who reckon he's not on their wavelength. Poll after poll shows women are deserting the Tories, and when interviewed by Red magazine to coincide with his party conference, the PM managed to shoot himself in the foot.

When asked if he was a feminist, Dave "spent a long time staring out of the window" before waffling "um … I don't know what I'd call myself …it's up to others to attach labels, but I believe men and women should be treated equally".

Feminism is not just about quotas, but about making sure women are not disadvantaged, and his track record – starting with the number of women in Cabinet – is pretty feeble. Cameron grew up in the 1970s in a home where women left the room after dinner so the chaps could smoke. His wife works, but she comes from an even more privileged background, the kind that allows you to think you're streetwise, when you've never been on benefits, never been stranded without your fare home.

To understand the lack of choice faced by modern women, Mr Cameron should dissect recent statistics showing that more of us work than ever. Work can bring rewards other than financial, but many women work in lowly paid jobs.

Women are prepared to work part-time on contracts offering fewer rights, little job security and smaller pensions. You can't tell me that all these women want to leave their children in the care of others, get on crowded public transport each morning and work for the minimum wage, because they don't. They work because the family budget demands it.

The latest official "happiness" survey, reveals that six out of 10 women are happy with their work-life balance. That means that 40 per cent of the women in the UK are dissatisfied, a huge proportion and something the PM should be concerned about.

That's why so many women think he's not on their wavelength. Child benefit has been axed for households where one earner is on a salary of more than £60,000; child tax credit has been cut; there's 20 per cent VAT on petrol; a belated tax allowance for married couples which won't come into effect until 2015 and is only worth around £200 annually; and transport costs have risen faster than wages. Child care is expensive and so is home help.

In their twenties, men and women in well-paid jobs earn roughly the same. But after age 35, it's a very different story. Despite out-performing males at A-level, two-thirds of female graduates are in lower paid jobs (which often require no degree) compared with men. Women who rise up the corporate ladder get smaller bonuses and few ever reach the boardroom. The women of Britain are going out to work in greater numbers than ever but does our Prime Minister understand the mental and physical sacrifices that they are making? On the basis of his stuttering reply to Red magazine, he does not.

Don't build in the country

Ed Miliband pledged to build 200,000 new homes annually if elected, but I doubt that any will have much in common with the winner of this year's prestigious Stirling Prize, a modern conversion within a 12th-century castle in Warwickshire.

Although a popular choice with the public, I doubt many will get to enjoy Astley Castle, as it costs £1,430 to rent for three nights from the Landmark Trust and is fully booked until April 2015.

According to the Cambridge centre for housing and planning research, we need to build 245,000 new homes a year – double the current level. I disagree. We need to repurpose existing office and leisure and unused public buildings, to repopulate town centres and high streets – because spreading out into the countryside is disastrous for existing villages and small towns, eradicating the reason why people want to live in them in the first place. Next year the Stirling Prize should stop honouring rich people's homes, quirky restorations and macho one-off buildings like embassies and museums and think small.

It should focus on recognising our pressing need for housing. A good example of the kind of old-style building we can no longer afford is Will Alsop's controversial arts centre in West Bromwich, The Public (dumb name) which cost more than £67m to build in 2008 and now costs £30,000 a week to run. The council have announced it is a luxury they cannot afford and it will close in November. The Public is a distinctive building, so why doesn't Alsop remodel it as social housing? I'd rather stay there than bland Astley Castle.

Singalonga Les

Sometimes a good singalong cleanses the soul, and after a week of karaoke king Damian McBride's revelations followed by plasticine Ed Miliband's dreadful attempts at humour, I found myself clutching a plastic cup of lukewarm vino, happily belting out "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" at the Playhouse Theatre in London.

Against all the odds, I had a wonderful evening at Spamalot. Fellow MasterChef finalist Les Dennis was a worthy King Arthur, and Warwick Davis a commanding presence as his side-kick Patsy. This pared-down production has a smaller stage and less glitz than the original Broadway show, but seems to capture the spirit of Monty Python. I can't remember being in an audience where everyone – from tourists to locals of all ages - had such a good time.

Take a hike

Last week I spent a couple of hours walking in beautiful Painshill Park, near Cobham, Surrey with fellow rambler Harry Enfield. We wandered through this romantic 18th-century landscape, over classical bridges and around assorted follies (sadly an ugly pylon blights the view of the gorgeous gothic tower) ending with a baked potato in the café, feeling fully restored.

I know from years of experience the mental benefits of walking – and research confirms it can help schoolchildren do better. A survey of 2,500 Year 7 and Year 8 pupils who walked to school found they felt calmer and better able to concentrate. Doctors think that walking will particularly help kids suffering from ADHD. As October is Walk to School month, I hope that parents will encourage their children to try it once a week. The only stressful part of walking with someone else, though, is arguing about which route to take.

Shop 'n' search

Post-Nairobi, there's talk of random bag searches in shopping malls. I doubt they'd achieve anything except perhaps deter a few shoplifters. And would women in burkas agree to be searched?