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Mary Ann Sieghart

Mary Ann Sieghart: Cameron's problem with women

As recently as the last election, women were more likely than men to vote Tory. But now that advantage has vanished

What a leader doesn't say is often more telling than what he does say. When Ed Miliband failed to turn on Tony Blair's booers last week, we learned that he wasn't prepared to stand up for Labour's most successful leader. When David Cameron failed to turn on the sexist boors a couple of weeks before, we learned more than we wanted to about his attitude to women.

In response to a question from Tory MP Nadine Dorries, he began, "I know the Honourable Lady is extremely frustrated," at which point the Labour guffaws erupted. Instead of berating the lads-mag louts, he chuckled, "I think I'm going to give up on this one." Dorries was left humiliated: not only was she demeaned by sexual innuendo but her leader neither stood up for her nor answered her question. She sat looking mortified, chewing her nails, for the rest of PMQs. Up in the press gallery, I felt mortified for her too.

It's good that Cameron apologised yesterday both for that incident and for having told the shadow Chief Secretary, Angela Eagle, to "Calm down, dear". Channelling Michael Winner is never a good electoral ploy; when you look as if you are patronising 51 per cent of your potential voters, it's political madness. And when those voters are deserting you en masse, it verges on suicidal.

For today's Tories have a serious problem with women. As recently as the last election, women were more likely than men to vote Conservative. The gap widened in the early, chummy months of the coalition. But now that advantage has vanished. And only 13 per cent of women say that the Conservatives are the party that best understands and reflects their views.

The image matters, whether it's Cameron's condescension or the relative dearth of powerful women at the top. Only four of the 29 ministers who attend Cabinet are female and only one, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has a big job. By contrast, nearly half the Shadow Cabinet is female.

But it's a reflection of women's lives too. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows that in the Noughties, women were 40 per cent more likely than men to fall down the earnings ladder, even after taking account of their education, occupation and whether they worked full- or part-time. Surprisingly, this also held true if they didn't have children in that decade.

Despite today's report that young women are earning more than young men, the economic crisis is still hitting them hard. Female unemployment is rising faster than men's and will get worse with the public-sector cuts. Women's pensions are being curbed, and they are more likely to notice cutbacks in education, council services and health. And all this at a time when prices are rising.

So it doesn't help when the Government reduces childcare support. A couple with two young children paying £200 a week in childcare will now have to find another £1,000 a year out of their post-tax income. No wonder a recent poll found that 41 per cent of poor parents said they were considering giving up work as a result. Whatever happened to making work pay? And why will the Universal Credit disadvantage the second earner in a couple, usually the woman?

If this government had a Harriet Harman, these mistakes wouldn't have been made. Even when it was unfashionable, Harman resolutely argued the cause of women, and particularly mothers. May is an impressive Home Secretary, but doesn't have children of her own and is not a persuasive champion of her sex.

This is a real problem for the Conservatives. Last week, Deborah Mattinson, the political pollster, conducted focus groups among people who voted Tory in 2010. "The group of men ... were very preoccupied with the economy and they were worried, really worried. Next came a group of women and they were mad as hell. I have rarely experienced such anger in a discussion like this. These women were all working very hard. Several were juggling family and more than one job. They all feared losing those jobs in the coming months... They felt that David Cameron and his Cabinet colleagues had no understanding of how it was for the likes of them and cared even less." Whew! If I were a Tory strategist, I would be very, very worried.

Cameron can't, for the moment, abandon his deficit-reduction strategy, though he could do more to encourage growth. But he could reverse the insane childcare cuts, which are pushing women out of jobs just when they should be working. And he could talk more cogently about what he is doing beyond the economy to make women's lives better.

The Big Society gets a bad press because ministers haven't properly explained it. Most voters think it's all about volunteering, and get exhausted just thinking about it. Actually you need only a handful of energetic parents to set up a free school for many hundreds of others to benefit.

And most Big Society policies have nothing to do with volunteering; they're about taking power out of the hands of officials and giving it back to the citizens or to charities that are more humane and less bureaucratic. For instance, people are being given personal budgets to spend on whatever social care suits them. One man paid his aunt to give up her job and move in to look after him. The result: he's happier and the state saves money because he doesn't have to go into a care home. Studies show that more than two-thirds of people with their own social-care budget say their quality of life has improved.

These are the policies that make a difference to women. Women live longer and are more likely to need social care; and middle-aged women are more likely to be looking after their elderly parents. Extending personal budgets into other areas, such as long-term illness, would also be popular – and in America, it has led to healthier patients and lower costs.

I am amazed that the Government has been so bad at selling the Big Society, an idea that should appeal to everyone from small-state right-wingers, through compassionate conservatives to localist liberals and the communitarian left. Free schools could have been called Big Society schools. The Localism Bill could have been the Big Society Bill. The NHS reforms could have been a way of putting patients, and the GPs they trust, in charge of directing their own healthcare, a Big Society ideal.

Women are the biggest consumers of public services. They hate the inflexibility, the loss of dignity, the lack of voice and choice that they often encounter. The Big Society has the power to change all that. So if the Tories want to woo women back, they should put it into practice and trumpet it loudly. That means all ministers, not just Cameron. It would be a lot more effective than holding a token reception for businesswomen at No 10.