It is not unusual for political parties to have slightly greater support among one sex than another. But it certainly is remarkable that some recent polls have given Labour a lead among women. Not a smaller deficit – but an actual lead.
A recent ComRes poll gave us a 16 point lead among men – and a four point deficit among women. Now not every poll gives Labour a lead amongst women – far from it. But the polls do betray a definite difference in support between the sexes. We need to accept that this is a problem; we need to examine why that is; and we need to agree what to do about it.
Social analysts have observed that to imagine men and women have different policy priorities is tempting but wrong. We all worry about crime, taxes, public services etc. And to suggest otherwise isn’t just a little patronising, it’s also wrong – and bad politics too.
But we do seem to differ in how we react to the answers proposed to those policy issues. Take family policy. Polls show that both sexes are in favour of greater support for families. But the most recent polling on our proposals shows a majority of women against a transferable tax allowance for married couples; compared with a clear majority of men in its favour.
In contrast, women offer clear support for the state to make it easier for them to combine children with work.
So, in the spirit of ‘and rather than or’, I should like to suggest the following.
In order to support families where one person does not work, but instead stays at home full-time to look after children, we should certainly introduce a transferable marriage or civil partnership allowance. Contrary to what our detractors say, it would most certainly not be intended as some bribe for unhappy couples to stay together. It would instead be a recognition of the fact that our current tax system unfairly penalises families that make difficult choices.
But we should balance this support for families making that particular difficult choice to stay at home with added support for families that make the different, but often equally difficult, choice that they both need to work.
We should do this by amending the existing childcare voucher system, so that where both parents work either full- or part-time, and are therefore not eligible for the transferable allowance, they should be able to increase their childcare allowance to the same value they would have received had one of them stayed at home and looked after their family.
And in contrast with this Government’s restrictions, such vouchers should be payable direct not just to registered childcarers, but also to family members, such as grandparents.
So we should support families where one parent stays at home to look after their children. But we should also support those families juggling childcare commitments with both parents working – whether that is through choice or through necessity.
Of course there is a cost here, and of course there should be safeguards and restrictions. We should target support at young families rather than all families; we should make sure the system is as abuse-proof as any government-led system can be. We should cost our plans and make sure than we introduce them at a time when they are affordable; we should balance reduced taxes in our area with reduced expenditure in others.
But we should above all reflect the increasingly complex society in which we live, and adapt the state to it willingly and enthusiastically rather than grudgingly. And this would be a significant step in doing so.