Nadine Dorries is Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire.
“I’m a woman Mary; I can be as contrary as I choose”.
These words, uttered by Dame Maggie Smith in her role as Granny during Sunday night’s episode of Downton Abbey, are guaranteed to make men weep with despair, especially David Cameron.
Recently there has been a huge amount of speculation in the media regarding women’s voting intentions and attitudes to the Conservative party.
The reality is nowhere near as bleak as the journalists would have us believe. Female support for the Conservative Party is certainly down. However, according to a You Gov survey the number of women intending to vote for the Conservative Party today in comparison to during the general election is down by just one point. The greater dip is in fact with men with a figure of minus three.
The women’s vote is by far the more elusive and has always puzzled the political strategists. It is clear that if we don’t keep women happy they won’t vote for a Conservative majority government in 2015.
In order to understand what women want, you first have to understand women. There is a reason why John Gray’s bestselling book ‘Men are from Mars Women are from Venus’ has sold almost eight million copies. Men and women are different.
A quick look at the progressive life changes and demands on both sexes at different times in their lives demonstrates that women have different priorities at various stages to a greater degree than men.
A 25 year old man who is worried about the economy and passionate about football is just as likely to be worried about the economy and passionate about football at fifty, regardless of where in the country he lives. Any woman working part-time at Tesco in Bolton will be able to tell you this.
A woman at 25 may also be interested in the economy, but at 35 she is more likely to be interested in the lack of affordable childcare, housing supply, inflation and food labelling. At 40 she will be worried about education, flexible working and job security. At 50 it will be whether or not the streets are safe for her teenagers to walk home, the war in Afghanistan, apprenticeships and tuition fees. Then at 60, as she enters the second phase of caring, it is the state of the NHS and social services.
Women worry. They worry because they are carers for almost all of their lives from the moment they give birth for the first time. When a marriage breaks down it is women who are left holding the baby. According to an ONS report in 2005, 91% of single resident parents are female.
Peacey and Hunt (2008) report that, in England, between 25-33% of single parents say that their children rarely, if ever, see their non-resident parent.
According to the 2001 census almost three million women are unpaid carers and in terms of Carer’s Allowance, the most recent DWP figures (February 2011) show that 73% of Carer’s Allowance claimants are female. As nurturers and carers women need to be reassured that the needs of the family, at all ends of the spectrum, are understood by those dictating policy.
In homes up and down the country, there are millions of women to whom the cost of filling two school lunch boxes on school days and the need to provide a nutritious family meal at the end of the day for growing children is a preoccupying concern.
If we suffer a hard winter, rising energy costs due to green investment in renewables will hit family budgets, which are usually managed by women. If that happens, the savings will have to be made at Christmas. No mother will forgive David Cameron if she is unable to provide the Christmas she wants for her children because of a Conservative ‘green’ agenda. When hardship walks in through the door, concern for the environment will fly out of the window.
Every mother on a tight budget is preoccupied with the price of shoes, especially mothers of boys. You can’t put a solar panel on a child’s feet.
As the pain of reducing the deficit begins to really hurt, commitment to a greener environment will be perceived as a luxury of the wealthy elite and we will be made to pay in lost votes. Women are good at revenge, a dish best served cold. They will serve it to us, nicely chilled, in 2015.
Women also differ in attitudes depending on their geographical location.
Number Ten needs to talk to the Sally Webster’s in Coronation Street as much as it does the modern day Lady Mary in Notting Hill. As a working class Northerner I can assure you that just about every woman north of Watford Gap takes huge exception to both men and women with plummy accents and Saville Row suits dictating policy which affects their lives.
It’s a Northern thing. We don’t trust people who talk posh (Labour have always known this) and we are utterly repelled by arrogance. Not only that, we can see right through schmoozing. In terms of presentation, what works for the metro elite woman of Chelsea absolutely will not work for the down to earth woman of Chorley. She would be more reassured by the sight and sound of a few more men or women from Chorley in the cabinet (Northern women are by and large indifferent to tokenism) an indicator that someone who understood her life was sat at the table.
Women up and down the country share the worry of childcare costs. Cost and access to affordable childcare was an issue which first exploded in 1991 and the then Conservative Government failed to listen to what women were asking for. We can’t make that mistake again. Childcare is possibly the one area where we can cut right into every family home in the country and make a difference. Childcare costs becoming tax deductable is a welcome announcement. It has to be the way forward and will win huge support amongst working women.
We must look for ways to help employers facilitate in-house childcare initiatives and an easier way to provide direct financial help without it becoming a benefit in kind. Greater investment in free nursery places, which will also create jobs, will go a long way to regaining the trust and support of all women.
The rest is down to the PM himself. The mood music of the party is heavy metal, but what is needed is a seduction tape. The Liberal Democrats are not a party women warm to as evidenced by the attendees at their own party conference and their own in-house concerns. Prime Minister, take note. If women trusted the Lib Dems, they would have voted for them.
If the Prime Minister is strong, steady and consistent, if he becomes someone who smiles just a bit less, looks a little more serious and if he can demonstrate he is fully in control and in charge. If he could say every now and then in defiance of the Liberal Democrats ‘this will happen because I said so and I am the Prime Minister’. If he can be resolute, unmoveable from a position and someone the cabinet fears then women will forgive an awful lot.
What every woman wants, whoever she is and wherever she lives, is to know that her family is in strong, safe hands. After all, that’s why they voted for Margaret Thatcher.