Virginia Crosbie is Director of Women2Win, Deputy Chair of Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservatives and the Conservative Policy Forum’s Champion for Social Mobility.
Losing the women’s vote – a trend or a one off?
In 2017, for the first time ever, a smaller proportion of women voted Conservative than men. In the last six decades women have tended to support the Conservatives slightly more than men, and as a Party we have come to rely on the women’s vote. Was 2017 a one off or is this the beginning of a very worrying trend?
This problem is getting more acute among younger female voters. In the 2015 and 2017 General Elections women, especially those under the age of 40, were more likely than men to vote Labour. In 2017, 73% of women aged 18-24 – nearly three times the figure in 2010 – voted Labour compared to 52% of men.
The trend does not seem to be improving; a poll recently by the think tank Onward found that only 8% of young women (compared to 20% of young men) say they will vote Conservative.
Losing the women’s vote made a significant difference to us in 2017; the Conservatives were only nine seats (excluding the Speaker) short of an outright majority, and a large number of seats were only narrowly lost. In 2017, 97 seats were won by a margin of 5% or less. A small improvement in women’s voting would have meant a lot more Conservative seats.
The women’s vote is becoming increasingly important due to demographics. Women currently make up 54% of the UK electorate reflecting the fact that women have a longer life expectancy than men, and turnout amongst older voters is higher. As the population ages and with women living on average 3.6 years longer than men – the women’s vote is becoming more and more important. Based on statistics from 2017, men and women are equally likely to vote, therefore with the proportion of female voters growing, we have a natural advantage if we can recover our appeal to women.
Winning back the women’s vote
It’s not clear why we are losing the women’s vote, and why we have failed to connect with younger women. Is it because women have been disproportionately affected by austerity? Is it because women are more worried than men about crime, the NHS and the future of the next generation? When I’m out campaigning I’m keen to ask people why they are not voting Conservative. Please can you share the feedback you have had on the doorsteps.
With over 15 million women now working, and with more than 500,000 women giving birth each year, we have an opportunity, an opportunity to ensure that we have the policies in place to support every woman and her family. As a party we have made great strides to improve the workplace for women with gender pay gap reporting, flexible working and greater maternity and redundancy protection. We need to shout about these successes so that young women know these are Conservative successes.
We also need to face up to some difficult questions. With more female MPs and more female MPs driving policy decisions, does this mean that Labour’s policies are more likely to appeal to women? Almost half of Labour MPs are women, whereas only one in five Conservative MPs are women. Labour has forced this figure through with ‘All Women Shortlists’ – something that is against our core Conservative values of hard work and merit. But does the number of women MPs matter? Has this given Labour an advantage? And if this has, what do we propose to do about it?
Increasing political engagement
Women are more likely to be politically engaged if they can vote for candidates they can relate to. Has this been the key to Labour’s success? In the 2017 General Election the Conservatives fielded 184 women candidates (28.4% of their total) versus 256 for Labour (40.6%). Labour fielded a significantly higher number of women candidates than the Conservatives in seats that Labour already held. In safe seats where Labour had a majority of 20-30% the difference was even more marked with over 50% of candidates being women. Since 1979, an average of 86 seats in each election became available as MPs stood down. As 2017 was a snap election only 31 MPs announced they would not stand for re-election.
Women are significantly under-represented among Conservative candidates, MPs and also councillors. After the 2019 local elections just 30% of Conservative councillors are women. Since local government has a disproportionate impact on women’s lives it would make sense for women’s voices to be better reflected in decision-making.
A higher number of female councillors, candidates and MPs can be interpreted as a sign and driver of political engagement for women. The AskHerToStand cross-party initiative by 50:50 Parliament has been successful in increasing the number of women coming forward to get involved in local politics or Parliament. Has your local association thought of hosting an AskHerToStand event to motivate more women to get involved? If not, then they should do so urgently.
Also, the ‘Make It Your Business’ initiative encourages and supports women entrepreneurs. I’ve hosted four ‘Make It Your Business’ events, and found it a great way to recruit women who do not appreciate that their entrepreneurial values are aligned to Conservative values. Get in touch if you would like to arrange one.
I’m keen to hear your thoughts and what has worked for you. I would especially like to listen to our younger members as to how we can broaden our Conservative base and deliver our message.
Encouraging more female members – a good place to start
I’m keen to help and I am regularly asked by Conservative Associations how they can attract more young members and particularly more women members. Seven out of 10 of our Conservative Party members are male, and we have a long way to go to achieve the parity that Labour, the Lib Dem’s, Greens and the SNP achieve. A good place to start is by supporting women to become association officers. The Party already has so many great initiatives and groups to attract new voters – the Conservative Policy Forum (CPF), the Conservative Women’s Organisation (CWO), CWO Diversity, Conservative Young Women (CYW) and the Young Conservatives (YCs).
Another initiative is for associations to build stronger relationships with universities, and encourage more students to join through student campaigns. I saw first hand how the students from Winchester University Conservative Society worked exceptionally hard to deliver leaflets in the recent local election.
If we are to win a majority in Parliament at the next General Election it is critical that we win the women’s vote. It’s going to take soul- searching and hard work, not just words. I hope this paper opens up the debate and helps us focus on how we can do this. We are missing out on a huge pool of voters and talent for our party. This is not political correctness this is political common sense. By working together to address the gender disparity of voting intentions I hope that it will help us succeed as a party.