So, if Labour has a problem with women voters then why and what can be done about it? And even if not, how we can appeal to this electorate? What is distinctive to female public opinion?
First of all, let’s deal with the Brown v Cameron face-off. There is little evidence that there is anything in either man’s personality that women view differently to men. The gender difference in attitudes seems to be mainly be that men have been quicker to form an opinion one way or the other.
Secondly, let’s look at the Government’s record. There are three key issues where there are wide divergences by gender. The first is on the economy – women are a lot less likely (by a margin of about 20 points) to give the Government credit for improving the economy. This may point to a particular problem for Brown.
Women are also a lot less likely to believe that the NHS has improved and are a lot more dissatisfied with both health performance and health policy. (Incidentally, women are significantly more negative about Patricia Hewitt than men – an example of why a female face doesn’t appeal to women if the policies are wrong.)
Finally, women are more angry about foreign policy – particularly the Iraq war, but they are generally more hostile to any military deployment than men.
Looking forward, women are more keen for a general “clean break” from Blair’s policies than men.
On Iraq, they are far more likely to want withdrawal of troops and want it far sooner than men; they are also much more likely to want an inquiry.
On broader foreign and defence policy, women are deeply opposed to renewing Trident for £25bn (though not in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament) and generally more hostile both to Bush’s America and greater engagement with the EU.
They are a lot more likely to demand that Government pays attention to domestic matters rather than the global arena, though there is little recent polling on international development, so aid and fair trade may well be viewed differently.
On home affairs, female voters are more concerned about crime, more likely to think it is rising, and more likely to favour tough measures in response. Unlike men, they are still in favour of ID cards even when the £93 is fee is mentioned. They are also more in favour of longer prison sentences – but have a nuanced view, being simultaneously favourable to more rehabilitation and community sentences.
However, it is worth noting that female voters are no more favourable – indeed, usually slightly less – to the Tories on “law on order” than men are.
There is a particularly acute gender gap on immigration, which women are far more hostile to than men – working class women especially so. However, they don’t trust the Tories on it any more than Labour.
There is not much recent polling evidence on education but women are more favourable to faith schooling than men – though interestingly, they are much less willing than men for their child to go to a school where most children were of another faith. The view of the Government’s performance is similar to that of male voters.
Women are more likely to think the environment is important in how they will vote, more likely to support (some) environmentalist policies and to take action themselves. They are also a lot more likely to believe that Cameron is genuine on the environment and that he has the best policies on it, which suggests one area that Brown may need to recapture the initiative on.
On the economy, women tend to be less concerned with the broad brush picture of growth or inflation and more concerned with the immediate finances of their family, which the cause of the perception gap between men and women. On taxes, they have a more nuanced view than men, being generally more keen to see tax cuts but far less keen on them if they mean cuts – particularly to the NHS.
Part of the issue here may well be women’s experience of the labour market – nearly half of all working women are part-time and most of those are in poorly paid, casualised jobs. Around 70% of workers on the minimum wage are women. This may be why they have a more negative perception of the economy, and perhaps of immigration.
On the question of priorities, the major issues for all voters over the last year have consistently been race relations & immigration, crime, defence & foreign policy and the NHS. Women have distinctive positions on all of these and also place a higher priority than men on health, Iraq, the environment and also issues like childcare and tax credits, though there is not much polling data on that.
We can begin to see some of the outlines of a strategy that might appeal to female voters from here. A switch in foreign and defence policy while maintaining a strong record on international development, taking a lead on the environment, stopping the havoc caused by NHS “reforms”, an active labour market policy and tackling the exploitation of migrant workers by employers without stoking up racial tensions would all be in the policy mix.
Women are certainly not calling for a sharp left turn, but equally well it is perfectly possible to construct a progressive political strategy to appeal to things that they do want. Whether Brown and the rest of the party leadership is so inclined, however, is a different question.