Blue leaflets emblazoned with middle-class men standing near bins and schools will soon be strewn across doormats from Chelmsford to Cumbria. Yes, it’s local election time. Much of the talk has been over how the Conservatives – and Labour – will be punished by voters over Brexit. But a recent poll shows that the Tories have another major problem to add to their woes: winning over female voters.
Only eight per cent of young women say they will vote Conservative, whereas 68 per cent of young women will opt for Labour, the poll for Onward reveals. This compares to 22.3 per cent of young men who said they’d vote for the Conservatives in the next election. For those who have been to a Tory party conference, this won’t come as much of a surprise: you only need to look around the hall to know that Tory boys easily outnumber Tory girls. But why are women turning away from the Tories? And what can they do about it?
The party’s perceived ineptness at supporting women hardly helps. For a start, little progress has been made in reducing childcare costs, which have soared under the Conservatives. Only six per cent of women across all ages think the Conservative party handle the question of childcare best, according to the poll; nearly three times as many – 15 per cent – think Labour would do a better job.
When UK childcare costs are among the highest in Europe, this lack of faith in their party shouldn’t be a shock to Tories. In the UK, there must be one child minder per four children (for those aged two and under). In France, this ratio is eight to one and in Sweden they don’t even have a limit. This strict rule in Britain pushes up costs. And because childcare responsibilities are more likely to fall on women, it’s women who lose out; the current astronomical costs hold women back from working extra time, getting that promotion and becoming financially independent.
To make matters worse, when the Tories have acted to try and help women, their choices have all too often been misguided. Gender pay gap reporting is a case in point. The Tories have ordained that companies produce meaningless statistics on salaries of men and women in different jobs. So the government has pushed the responsibility to fix the gap onto business. In fact, this problem starts much earlier in life. Women are still not taking STEM subjects at schools and university at anywhere near the rate as men, for example. And the women that do study STEM subjects tend not to go into STEM related careers. Such jobs are a straightforward route to earning more, meaning that this is one key area that the Tories should be focusing on addressing, rather than trying to stick a PR plaster on the situation.
At the local elections, another of the Tories’ problems will become painfully evident: the lack of female Tory candidates and councillors: 41 per cent of Labour’s candidates in 2017 were female compared to only 29 per cent of Conservative candidates. And far from the Tories trying to correct this imbalance, things are actually getting worse: in Scotland the number of female Tory councillors dropped by six per cent in 2017; meanwhile, other parties saw their total number of female councillors rise.
Some of the party’s more recognisable figures also make it hard for the party to shake off its image as being stuck in the past when it comes to women. Who does Jacob Rees-Mogg think he’s impressing when he boasts about not helping with nappy-changing or the washing up? If MPs are talking about delegating the childcare, why would voters think their party cares? It’s no wonder that few women feel like they’re aligned to Tory party values when they have blue MPs espousing these views.
Of course, this isn’t true of all Tory MPs. Tom Tugendhat (the man who changes his child’s nappies down-the-line to Radio 4), Matt Hancock (who was responsible for extending parental leave to fathers) and Bim Afolami (the first dad in British parliamentary history to vote by proxy while on paternity leave), are helping the party’s image among women. Penny Mordaunt is also doing her bit by pledging to stand up for abortion rights. And for all her faults, Theresa May is also a useful reminder that being a women is no barrier to getting the top job in the Tory party, even if a bunch of blokes are desperate to see you gone.
But these signals on their own won’t be enough if the Tories really do want to fix their woman problem. It is doubtful that the Conservative party will ever poll better than Labour when it comes to support among women. This is particularly true given that the evidence suggests that women are more likely to support traditionally left-wing concerns, such as redistribution.
But that doesn’t mean the Tories should give up. If the Conservatives do succeed in persuading more female voters to back them, they will be richly rewarded at the ballot box. Perhaps that alone is reason enough to encourage the Tory party to wake up to their problem and realise that winning over female voters will be the difference between triumph or disaster come the next election.