Labour's patronising manifesto and the trouble with 'women's issues'

The obsession with courting the mysterious 'women's vote' does not just preoccupy one party

Jane Merrick
Sunday 11 January 2015 01:00 GMT
Harriet Harman’s manifesto for women is likely to put off rather than attract voters (Richard Maude)
Harriet Harman’s manifesto for women is likely to put off rather than attract voters (Richard Maude)

Last week I met a clutch of women who had one thing in common: they are all seeking election as Conservative MPs on 7 May. Apart from that, they were all different.

Some were mothers, some were not. Some had backgrounds in business, others in the law. Some were deadly serious and earnest, others were, frankly, a bit of a hoot. And talking to them, each woman wanted to discuss something different to the next. One talked about the NHS, another, inflation, and a third, the fact that the previous day's early election launch did seem to involve a lot of men shouting over each other on TV. Here was a cohort of women whom you might suppose would be similar, but in fact were as varied as a box of Quality Street.

Because, at the risk of stating the obvious, and here is a bit of breaking news: women are, actually, not all the same. You knew that. So why do I need to say it? Because the day after I met these candidates, the Labour Party announced that it was launching a special "women's manifesto" to court nine million female voters who chose to stay away from the ballot box in 2010. Harriet Harman, highlighting figures that show more women are turning their backs on politics than ever before, pledged a special manifesto highlighting what Labour would do on childcare, domestic violence, equal pay and female representation in public life.

It should go without saying that I admire Harriet Harman. She has changed British politics. She has got more women on the green benches than any other politician. Harman was doing the kind of networking event I attended last week for female Conservative candidates, more than a decade ago with Labour women. Second, I care about all those things in the "women's manifesto" – I have a child, am deeply troubled by the mostly hidden scourge of domestic violence, want the gender pay gap to close and would like to see 50 – not 30 or 40! – per cent of parliament and executive boards be female.

Yet not every woman will be casting her vote on 7 May because of childcare. Some female voters, while of course being concerned about domestic violence, might put the NHS, or care for the elderly, or how much their train fare to work has risen this month, at the top of their electoral wishlist. At the same time, men – as shadow children's minister Alison McGovern told this newspaper last month – who have children are just as concerned about the cost of childcare, and education, as mothers are.

While it is not in doubt that the number of women who did not vote is increasing and overtaking men – 9.1 million in 2010 – drawing up a "women's manifesto" is not the way to win them over. To be told what they think, in fact, may actually put them off. What is worse is that labelling things like childcare and domestic violence as "women's issues" excludes them from being issues that everyone – man or woman – should be aware of. Domestic violence, in particular, should be an issue debated with impressionable young men who, it has been shown, risk copying this behaviour in later life after being exposed to it at home.

An obsession with courting this mysterious "women's vote" does not just preoccupy Labour. David Cameron thinks finding what women voters want is a search for the "Holy Grail". Yet the Prime Minister, as a hands-on father, should know that these sorts of issues appeal to men and women alike. Maybe I can speak for all women on one thing alone, and that is we don't want to be told what we think. And perhaps if politicians stopped trying to look so desperate in their search for the "Holy Grail", they might find they already have it.

The man with several faces

You may remember that in 2009, Gordon Brown was lambasted for going on YouTube in a bid to search for that other electoral quicksilver, the youth vote.

Top of the list of ridicule was the fact that the then Prime Minister, in a YouTube clip, rather oddly broke into a smile halfway through a serious sentence. It was speculated, back then, that he had been coached into smiling to come across as more easygoing but – typical Gordon, they said – he got it all wrong when a half-grin leapt across his face before vanishing.

But the new BBC series The Super-Rich and Us last week showed a clip of Brown from 1993 in which the young shadow Chancellor suddenly broke into a nanosecond smile midway through a serious piece-to-camera about offshore tax havens. It turns out that we were all wrong in 2009 – Brown wasn't displaying some newly learnt mannerism from his spinners, this was, after all that, merely a Brownian tic.

On a roll in Westminster

Recently, I started part-commuting to work on a Micro Scooter. Leaving the House of Commons on my scooter last week I bumped into Glyn Davies, the 70-year-old Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, who told me he uses his scooter to get from his flat over Westminster Bridge into the Commons – saving the taxpayer on any fares.

One evening, when the Division Bell rang, Davies and a colleague, who were having a meeting south of the river, had just minutes to get to the voting lobbies. While his fellow MP climbed into a taxi, the Welsh MP jumped on to his scooter – and got there first.

Breakfast eaten and 96p left

Last month I wrote that, while she made some valid points about cooking skills declining, Baroness Jenkin was incorrect to say it is possible to have a bowl of porridge for 4p.

She has since told me that she buys her porridge oats from Aldi at 75p a kilo, and, with milk taken into account, she really can do it for 4p. She has scrupulously worked this out because every May she takes part in the Live Below the Line challenge, which involves living on £1 a day for a week to campaign against world hunger. In fact, she sometimes makes her porridge with apple – using windfalls from a tree down the road that she freezes through winter. I take my hat off to such resourcefulness, and am happy to be corrected.

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