It used to be received wisdom that women were more likely to vote Conservative than men. As is so often the case, that assumption lingered for some years after its sell-by date, and is now defunct.
In fact, the opposite now appears to be true. As YouGov’s Peter Kellner wrote in the aftermath of the 2017 election:
‘The long-standing gender gap in British politics has been reversed, with women in their thirties and forties moving decisively towards Labour
For six decades, pollsters have been analysing the gender split at general elections. Until 1992, women were more likely than men to vote Conservative. From 1997 until 2015, the gender gap all but disappeared. This year, for the first time, women were significantly more likely than men to vote Labour. Among men, the Tories enjoyed a 6-point lead (45 to 39 per cent) – enough to give Theresa May a comfortable majority. Women divided evenly (43 to 43 per cent). On those figures, Jeremy Corbyn would now be prime minister.’
Of course, things could be worse than level pegging among women voters. But going from a seemingly in-built advantage among half of the population to simple parity is a major loss of support – and fighting to a draw among women when you win by six points among men is evidence of costly underperformance.
There used to be a lot of talk of David Cameron’s ‘women problem’ – some suggested that his ‘Flashman’ moments (“calm down, dear”) might have harmed his support, though Anthony Wells was of the view that it wasn’t quite that simple. But by 2017 Cameron was gone, replaced by the second ever female Prime Minister, who made a virtue of being “a bloody difficult woman, and still the issue persisted – suggesting it relates to the wider brand, not simply to the leader of the day.
As Kellner pointed out, that under-performance among female voters made the difference between a good victory and a hung Parliament. The search for an antidote to this issue therefore motivates a good portion of the Government’s non-Brexit-related activity.
Most topically, the decision to compel large companies and public bodies to reveal their gender pay gap is felt to be a compelling way to make clear the Government is acting on pay inequality, an issue which the Prime Minister describes as a “major injustice” which “hold[s] women back”. Notably, the Conservative Party itself will voluntarily publish its own gender pay figures tomorrow, too.
The hunt is on for topics which play disproportionately well with women. Ipsos MORI’s Issues Tracker, for example, suggests that while Brexit is still female voters’ top concern, among women the NHS comes a far closer second place. Readers will note that health spending is now back on the Government’s radar.
The new Tory push on the environment can also be seen through this lens. Recent polling by BrightBlue explored the gender divide of Conservative voters on various environmental issues, offering some insight into which policy areas particularly appeal to Tory-sympathetic women. For example, 49 per cent of Conservative-supporting women prioritise tackling the illegal wildlife trade, compared to 37 per cent of men – and oh look, DEFRA is introducing an ivory ban.
Whether all this is going to work, of course, is a different question. But knowing that ministers hope it will is some guide to their decisions.