The myth of 'women's issues'

In practice, it makes more sense to see all political questions as affecting everyone
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The Independent Online

Three cheers for Alison McGovern, Labour's shadow minister for children and families, who says childcare should not be stereotyped as a women's subject. As we report today, she has criticised the "lazy assumption" that all women have an "inbuilt interest in small children", an assumption that tends to exclude fathers from the debate about so-called "women's issues".

Ms McGovern is right that women and men are interested in mostly the same things. In politics, women as well as men recognise that the deficit is a problem and women as well as men have opinions about whether Labour's more Keynesian policy would make it better or worse. Just as men as well as women have opinions about the quality and cost of childcare, the availability of school lunches or the policy on help for carers.

Of course, there are a few systematic differences between women and men that opinion polls reveal. Women are more likely to say that they "don't know" in answer to almost any question, and are less likely to choose an option that is seen as risky. These are qualities that have much to recommend them, regardless of sex. Thus, there was a big gender gap in the Scottish referendum, with women less likely to support independence with its attendant dangers of the unknown. Women also tend to be more sceptical when asked questions about military action. Again, nothing wrong or indeed feminine about that.

On most subjects, however, the gender gap is small or mythical. It has been suggested, for example, that the Prime Minister has a "women problem". If so, this shows up in some opinion polls and not others. Generally, the sex bias in voting behaviour is not marked. Even if it does exist, it is not obvious what the lessons should be. There was some evidence that women voters had a slight preference for Labour over the Tories in the later years of the last government. This was sometimes described as the Tories' women problem, when it might have made just as much sense to worry about Labour's "men problem".

In practice, it makes more sense to see all political questions as affecting everyone. Plainly, there are groups of voters who have different interests. Older voters are more interested in pensions. Tenants are more interested than homeowners in security of tenure. Parents of school-age children are more interested in the dropping of AS-levels. But then each type of voter is related to or concerned with other people with other interests.

It was always simplistic and a little patronising to divide up voters into the C2s, Basildon Man, Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman. Even the electoral history of the past few years is littered with instances in which lazy assumptions about typical voters have been confounded. Ukip was thought to be a right-wing party that appealed to the right wing of Conservative supporters. But the party is also attractive to "left-behind" former Labour voters, and our poll two weeks ago found that, overall, the voters think that the Tory party is more right-wing than Ukip. Equally, the assumption in Scotland that Ukip was an alien "English" party was confounded in the European elections this year when a Ukip MEP was elected there.

Perhaps the most foolish division of voters is that between men and women. This newspaper yields to none of its competitors in its commitment to feminism, to equal rights for women. But that entails the right to be equal in economics and foreign policy, rather than to be consigned to a second-rank category of so-called "women's issues".

One of the great advances for men and women in recent decades has been that fathers want to be and are so much more involved in bringing up their children. Our political parties should recognise and celebrate this change. Congratulations to Ms McGovern for doing so.

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