Women in politics

Gender Agenda: The Transatlantic Quest for the Female Vote

Portland’s Susanna Rushton explores the battle for women’s votes on both sides of the Atlantic

The ‘female vote’ seems to be more important on both sides of the Atlantic than we’ve seen for a long time. In the US, a distinct set of ‘women’s’ policies have opened up a new political battleground. In the UK, the question is more about the distributional effect of economic policy. However, this ‘female vote’ remains elusive for politicians both here and in the States.

David Cameron’s team think he has enough trouble with women to merit hiring an adviser with no other remit. If you ask the Democrats, the Republicans have unleashed a “war on women” in the US. Obama’s flirtations with his wife,Romney wooing soccer moms and Cameron’s “date nights” with Samantha have been catalogued by the media as the politicians each try their own approach to courting the female vote.

With women apparently more likely to consider switching their vote between parties in the final days of a campaign – and in the States at least far more likely to vote than men as well – it’s understandable that politicians and their advisers think about voters in a gender-based way.  However, if we compare the US and UK, then the debates actually start to look quite different. And, this has implications in turn for how useful the term ‘female vote’ is when thinking about why people vote the way they do.

Arguments about access to contraception and abortion have been high profile in the final months of the US presidential campaign. Romney’s commitment to scrapping sexual healthcare provider Planned Parenthood, and his suggestion that employers should have the right to refuse health insurance to employees spending it on birth control have been well documented by the media.

Unsurprisingly, the Democrats have seized on these opinions and sought to magnify them to their advantage as much as possible. When the Republican nominee for the Missouri Senate seat, Todd Akin, made offensive comments about rape earlier this year, Democrats were quick to suggest they were shared more widely by the Republicans. The ‘war on women’ is an appealing narrative in the fight for the female vote.

On the other side of the pond, Cameron’s ‘women problems’ have largely (though not entirely) emerged in response to the Government’s deficit reduction programme. Fawcett Society research has shown that because of the gender balance of lower-paid public sector workers, about 70% of the 710,000 jobs cut will belong to women. In addition, women are on the whole more likely than men to be reliant on the childcare element of tax credits, which is set to change, while their ability to enter the job market will be harmed by closures to child care schemes, after-school clubs and the support given by Sure Start centres.

This means that women account for 80% of the increase in long-term unemployment since May 2010. As damaging is Commons research showing that of the £15 billion George Osborne is raising in extra direct taxes and changes to benefits, pay and pensions, £11 billion will come from women.

This is not to pretend that there is an absence of political debate over a more discrete set of ‘women’s’ issues in the UK.  As Jeremy Hunt has just discovered, abortion  can be highly politically charged here too.  And a Prime Minister who has promoted few women to Cabinet and told Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear” risks playing into claims – no matter how unjustified – that his party has an ‘anti-woman’ agenda.

But in both the US and UK, the danger of such debates is that they simplify and divide voters’ opinions on gender lines. In reality, of course, not all women or men feel the same way about any one issue.

In Nadine Dorries’s defeated amendments last year on the advice given at abortion clinics there was no clear gender divide. Likewise, Democrats might seek the ‘female vote’ by reassuring liberals of their position on women’s rights issues, but that won’t win over right-of-centre women who disagree with their principles.

Every serious political strategy nowadays rests on identifying pockets of voters who need to be won over. Backed up by polling and focus groups, policies are can then be  tailored to different interest groups, based on any variable or combination of class, ethnicity, income, location, education or family circumstance.

The danger in politics comes when the narratives associated with particular groups of voters become so strong that they start to take on a life of their own. The current approach of the Tories to tackling their ‘problem with women’ risks falling into this camp.

It often looks as if it rests on an generalised and frankly patronising idea of what women might like, such as an interview in Grazia magazine or insights into the Camerons’ own marriage. It would be better for the response to be tailored to the actual problems facing particular voters, who happen to be women, in their daily lives rather than starting with their gender.

Neither the Tory party nor women gain if all female voters are lumped together with appeals based on gender rather than arguments about the economy, civil liberties, health and education or any other issue.

Mr Cameron may well find out that the only group that such a sweeping (and at times insulting) approach helps is the Labour party. They can build what are actually specific problems facing specific income groups into an entire Tory ‘anti-women’ stance. Once this narrative is established – and this is already happening – the government will find it increasingly hard to shake off.