David Cameron’s interview with the Sunday Times over the weekend seems to have reawakened an underlying problem for the Conservative Prime Minister – he has a problem with women.
Since the beginning of the year, polling has shown a disproportionate decline in the support for the Coalition Government from female voters, compared to men. An ICM poll carried out in September showed the Labour Party had a 6% lead over women voters (27% to 21%) compared to just 1.5% among men (26% to 24.5%). In addition, according to a recent poll conducted by Age UK, nearly half of women over 55 are dissatisfied with the way David Cameron is doing his job – almost double the figure from the previous year.
After being elected leader of the Conservatives in 2005, David Cameron made clear attempts to try courting the female vote and rebuild the Party’s image based on compassionate conservatism. Back in 2009, Mr Cameron and his team even spoke of attracting the “Holby City woman” – the new target voter, in her thirties or early forties, who is likely to do a clinical or clerical job in the NHS. However, since coming into power this part of the electorate has begun to switch-off – but why?
The Labour Party – seeing this as a clear weakness in the Government’s current approach – has been keen to stress that the Coalition’s deficit reduction programme is putting an unfair burden on women, who tend to rely more on public services. Plans to speed up the rise of the pension age also mean that 300,000 women currently in their 50s could end up working up to two years more before they can collect their pension.
In opposition, David Cameron and his Shadow Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, saw protecting maternity services as a priority for a Conservative government, seeking to end the reconfiguration of maternity services that were not in the best interest of both mother and child. However, since coming into power nearly 18 months ago, the reality has been far different. The Department of Health was accused of u-turning on its original proposals to give the NHS Commissioning Board responsibility for maternity services and instead handed it to the new clinical commissioning groups. In addition, only last month, the Royal College of Midwives warned of dire shortages in the number of midwives in every region of the country and called on the Prime Minister to honour his pre-election pledge to increase their numbers.
A leaked memo obtained by The Guardian showed that this loss of female support is an area of concern for the Government, saying: “We are clear that there are a range of policies we have pursued as a government which are seen as having hit women, or their interests, disproportionately”. To address this fall in support, the Government set out a series of proposals – from better support for carers to celebrating women in business. Nevertheless, the continued fears amongst many families about rising household bills, increased pressure on public services and cuts to public sector jobs means there is a considerable challenge on government to demonstrate they are on the side of women.
During this year’s conference, David Cameron has already said he “deeply regrets” comments he has made to female MPs in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions and how these might have been perceived – an apology many will welcome. However, beyond the bubble and politics of Westminster, the Prime Minister and his team need to use their conference to set out a clear agenda for how, in government, they are going to put themselves on the side of women and achieve some of the goals they set out in opposition.