Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
I was struck by the recent piece on this website by Mark Wallace on the gender voting gap, quoting research by You Gov and Peter Kellner made in the wake of last year’s general election. If anyone wonders if it matters that we are falling behind on the female vote, then the conclusion that the lack of support amongst women for the Conservatives made the difference between us having a majority in Parliament in 2017 and not having one should stop that speculation in its tracks.
And if it is right that women in their thirties and forties are now more likely to back Labour then, unless we find a way to win them and their younger sisters over, we will have an even bigger problem at the next election, whenever it comes.
Mark identified that a good proportion of the Government’s non-Brexit time is being spent on searching for a way to close this gap, and rightly identified NHS spending as a key issue to focus on. I think it is also worth reminding ourselves of Lord Ashcroft’s conclusions from last September about the Conservative brand. I’ve never believed that there are ‘women’s issues’, but I do believe there is a female perspective on major political issues which political parties and commentators often ignore, and turn women off with the language we use and the attitudes we adopt.
In that 2017 analysis of voters’ perceptions of the Conservative and Labour parties, Lord Ashcroft showed that we were behind on: ‘wants to help ordinary people get on in life’; ‘its heart is in the right place’; ‘ stands for fairness/opportunity for all’; ‘on the side of people like me’; ‘shares my values’ – and the depressing list went on. We were only ahead of Labour on ‘competent and capable’ and ‘willing to take tough decisions for the long term’.
On issue priorities, we seemed to be a long way off being seen as having ‘cost of living’ as a priority, despite it being the highest one for ‘me and my family’ and had ground to make up on schools, social care, the NHS and the environment. Now as I say, those figures are from last year, and clearly the Party has done a lot of work in areas such as the NHS and the environment since then. There is more to come on social care fairly soon.
In addition, the Prime Minister took care in her recent excellent speech to the Spring Forum to talk clearly about our commitment to public services, and to renew the Party’s school standards agenda. It is a speech which deserved much wider publicity. My office had to really hunt for it on conservatives.com – a bit like the elusive Spring Forum invitation e-mails to MPs.
In that speech, Theresa May also laid out the Party’s enduring values: security, opportunity and freedom as well as aspiration, ambition and happiness. Having just given a speech earlier in the month on values-driven conservatism, it is encouraging to see renewed mention of One Nation conservatism from the top of our Party.
And this emphasis on values will, I believe, be crucial in winning back the female vote. It will be impossible to challenge female voters’ perception of the Conservative Party without being very explicit and repetitive about what motivates us. Women think on a much longer-term basis than men – we plan for the longer term personal and economic security of our families, we aren’t interested in political point-scoring, and research shows we are much less likely to get involved in political campaigning for any party – but it is worth noting that the Conservatives lag behind others on this too.
We will need to flesh out our offer on women’s economic and personal security – being honest about and addressing bias in pay, work, education, financial products. The gender pay gap disclosures are just a start. Female voters we hope to attract will want to know what the Government intends to now do with the information it has. A lot of the gap comes from occupational segregation. Solutions aren’t just about childcare and maternity leave. Women are still too concentrated in the 5 Cs: cleaning, catering, clerical (admin), cashiering (retail) and childcare.
For women, online safety is not a matter of who shared information about whom in the referendum. It’s about a world which has been created in which misogyny reigns freely, our children never escape their bullies and their addiction to games affects their personalities. Continued focus on domestic violence, stalking, sexual harassment and everyday sexism are essential.
And, finally, the elephant in the room is that we have to get more female MPs elected. The Conservative Party has to look and sound like the country that we aspire to represent. Research has shown that women are much more likely to vote if they have a fem ale MP. The power of a female Prime Minister talking with first-hand knowledge about cervical smears was impressive – but most women will not be watching PMQs. We have to have more female candidates having conversations with women on their doorsteps.In spite of the heroic efforts of campaigners such as Anne Jenkin the Party went backwards last year in terms of the number of female MPs on our benches. The Party Chairman, the Candidates’ Department and CCHQ must renew their commitment to this cause.