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Thursday 1st December 2011 | 13:49
‘David Cameron’s women problem’ has been much discussed over the past few months. From the expansion of free early years care to the promotion of Justine Greening and Chloe Smith, so many of the Prime Minister’s actions are seen as attempts to reverse his seemingly ‘dreadful’ standing with women voters – and controversies like his ‘Calm down, dear’ gaffe are seen as the perfect background for a leader who Labour seek to present as the chauvinistic ‘Flashman’.
There is also the long-standing argument that the Conservative Party must always outperform its standing amongst women in order to offset its weakness among men. Daniel Knowles of the Telegraph declared last month: “You can almost taste the panic: they've lost the women! Historically, women have always been more likely to vote Conservative; without them, Labour would have won almost every election since the end of WWI.”
Well, yes and no – depending on your definition of ‘always’ and ‘almost’ – but the idea is, generally speaking, wildly out of date.
The Ipsos MORI ‘How Britain Voted’ analysis, which began in October 1974, is laid out in the chart below. It shows 'advantage' as the gap between the Conservative lead (or deficit) amongst women and their lead among men - and lays bare the long-term defeminisation of the Conservative vote.
The decline of the Conservative female advantage hit hard in 1987 before returning for the more moderate and mild-mannered John Major in 1992 (an election where men still gave the Conservatives a lead of 4 points), and was then squeezed back down again by New Labour. Finally, in 2005, the parties flipped, with Labour gaining the comparative advantage among women.
It has clearly been a Cameron strategy to reverse this decline, highlighted by the importance his team have placed on schemes like Women2Win to improve, successfully, the number of women in the parliamentary party.
So what has happened since 2010? Since the cuts, strikes, ‘Calmdowngate’, etc? The charts below, using monthly averages in the YouGov tracker since January 2010 help to bust the myth of underperformance among women.
The Conservatives began 2010 with a sizeable lead among men, which they lost even before ‘Cleggmania’ kicked off in autumn, with the Liberal Democrat debate bounce among men coinciding with small reductions in Labour and small parties. During the post-election Liberal Democrat decline, both Labour and the Conservatives saw slight improvements among men. Since September 2010, however, Labour has led YouGov’s male voting intention, fairly convincingly over the past year. Last month, Labour were on average 7 points ahead.
Among women, however, the story is more complex. The Conservatives began 2010 with a similar 8 point lead among women but saw a 7 point fall following the leadership debates, as the Clegg April 2010 boost was 9 points more significant among women than men. Through the spring and summer of 2010, the Conservatives appeared to benefit from the Liberal Democrat collapse amongst women to a greater extent than Labour, and were able to maintain their lead in the women’s vote until the end of the year.
Last winter, however, Labour took a small lead among women, perhaps as a result of the gloomy economic news, cuts or specific measures like the tuition fees hike. But by October, David Cameron had closed the gap again with Ed Miliband, and the parties appear neck and neck among women going into 2012.
Using exactly the same method of calculating the Conservative lead advantage as above, the YouGov monthly advantage is shown below. The Conservatives had a good start to their 2010 election campaign among women, gaining a clear advantage, which was torpedoed by Nick Clegg and regained through 2010. There was certainly a decline in this through last autumn and winter, but it seems to have been reversed, to some extent, with October particularly encouraging for David Cameron.
There is of course no such thing as ‘the women’s vote’, but even on the terms that the Prime Minister’s detractors view it, his problems seem deeply exaggerated.