Women, the forgotten voters

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One third of all women have not yet decided how to vote. They are floating and dithering as never before, while only 25 per cent of men are still undecided. How do the parties greet this news? Do you hear the distant rumble of a political stampede to try to capture that tempting prize? Not a sign of it.

Two reports out today highlight women's attitudes and voting habits: one from the Fawcett Society based on Mori polling, the other, "What Women Want on Politics", from the Women's Communications Centre.

The Mori/Fawcett research shows that more women are afloat and adrift than last year. Fawcett's focus groups of floating women reveal that they do not trust any of the parties to keep their promises. They think politicians are out of touch and they are put off by the confrontational nature of the Westminster wrestling ring. Now Fawcett, being a noble and feminist organisation, puts the best possible spin they can on all this, and their director, Shelagh Diplock, describes the floating women thus: "These are the thoughtful voters, women who are deeply concerned about the impact that their vote could have on their lives and communities. They represent millions of women whose votes are yet to be won."

Ho hum. Women are more thoughtful voters than men? How come this woman's thoughtfulness has brought victory to every Tory government since the war? Talk about turkeys voting for christmas. Floating voters? More like headless chickens. If it wasn't for the suffragettes, if women never had the vote, we would have had nothing but Labour governments. On reflection, that too is a pretty grizzly prospect, but at least there would have been no Thatcher, no poll tax, no Euro-phobia, no privatised fat-cats, no tripling in the numbers of the very poor. At the last election, Conservatives had a seven per cent lead among women voters and that gender gap in voting habits has been constant since the war. Why? Conservatism reflects security, the known, and the aspirational. Advertisers all know how women aspire upwards far more than men of the same class. Cloth-cap Labour was not for them.

Women don't care about politics, don't think it's for them and they don't want to know: they are intentional know-nothings. In a Mori poll recently, only 43 per cent of women described themselves as interested in politics, while a huge 63 per cent said they were not interested. (Among men, it was the opposite, with 61 per cent interested and only 31 per cent not.) Researchers hasten to find excuses for women: men may not really know any more about politics than women, but masculine pride means they pretend to. Against that are the television viewing figures: ITC research shows that women rate news and current affairs pretty low, men rate them high.

This brings us up abruptly against what has always been the difficult part of feminist theology, like Christians struggling to believe in the Trinity and the Virgin birth. Feminist theory says women are always, at all times, and in all ways better than men. End of story. We can explain away the relative shortage of great women painters, composers, leaders, mathematicians, etc. because women have always been held back. Women are no stupider when it comes to exam results: girls are doing better than boys. Women have a tendency to be nicer - not so bossy and self-important, more self-deprecating, better company, less bombastic. Mothers tend to come better out of literature and autobiography than fathers: motherhood is suffused with all the good, tender, affectionate things, while fatherhood is fraught with fear, authority, remoteness and the need to control others. But if women are so nice, how come so many more of them vote Conservative?

The story is not as simple as that. Women are not a single homogenous group, and young women vote differently to older women. Among 18- to 24- year-olds, six per cent more women support Labour, while seven per cent more young men vote Conservative. Bob Worcester of Mori thinks young men's tendency to vote Tory is mainly a testosterone factor - Tories are tougher and young men swung behind Thatcher in 1983 in admiration of her Falklands victory. But by the time women reach 35, conservatism settles in. By the time they reach 55, seven per cent fewer support Labour than men of the same age.

Now the question for Labour's future is this: are young women harbingers of a better tomorrow, a new generation with different attitudes more likely to vote Labour? Or, as they grow older, will they also grow into their mother's and grandmother's voting habits? No one knows yet. After all, today's fiftysomething women were once Sixties swingers, yet look at them now. It seems that once women have children, their attitudes veer sharply towards conservative values, while fatherhood does not much change men's views. Now Labour might draw great comfort from the strong support they get from the young. But alas, 57 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds don't bother to vote - and demographically there are not very many of them anyway. That explains why no politicians are to be found wooing them.

But why don't politicians target women voters more vigorously? The second report out today studies the parties' draft manifestos and campaign guides to date, searching in vain for much to appeal specifically to women. The parties all have their women's documents, but after launching them with a one-day razzmatazz women vanish from the broad picture. Child care, equal rights for part-timers, equal pay (still 20 per cent less than men's) - all these things are so marginal to men that they fall through the grating when it comes to drawing up broad party policies.

Is that why women are turned off politics? It is still an activity for men, by men talking to other men. Women are the also-rans, the add-ons, the extras, the occasional bright suit in a sea of grey. While all that is true, no, I'm afraid it doesn't quite hold water, for women are not opting out and refusing to vote. If you want to see a taste of genuine, dangerous political alienation, consider the young blacks, 80 per cent of whom don't vote. No, a higher proportion of women actually bother to vote than men - and more of them choose to vote Conservative.

The gender gap in voting may not matter this time because Labour's lead is so incredibly huge. But there are plenty of Labour politicians who still doubt their luck, who cross their fingers, eschew ladders and black cats for fear that the Tories could yet by some black art pull off a miraculous revival, (I am not one of those: I know the Tories have had it). But anxious Labour politicians would do well to start thinking harder about the women's vote. If one third of all women really have not made up their minds yet (silly moos), they could still be the ones to sweep John Major back to Downing Street. So when the real manifestos are published shortly, all parties would be well-advised to make sure child care, after-school schemes, holiday clubs and equal pay are up there in the opening paragraphs, not tucked away in some brief esprit de l'escalier.