Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Keeping mum

Women’s support for Labour may have held up at the election but the government will have to act on more than just childcare to maintain it, says Sue Tibballs

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Tony Blair owes a debt of gratitude to women voters. According to Mori, Labour’s share of the vote among women at the general election was 38 per cent, a drop of five percentage points compared to 2001. Labour support from men, meanwhile, slumped by nine points to 34 per cent. Some women may be walking away from Labour but, in comparison, men are breaking into a run.

Fawcett’s director, Katherine Rake, issued a warning to Labour in Progress in May 2004 that it urgently needed to act to hold on to the women voters who came over to the party in large numbers in 1997 and stuck with it in 2001. The headline figures suggest Labour largely managed to do this. However, a more interesting picture is found by looking at women voters’ preferences broken down by age.

In the run-up to the election, Labour made no secret of the fact that it was going after ‘do-it-all’ women and ‘schoolgate mums’ – women with children of school age who struggle to balance home and work. And, according to Mori polling taken in the run-up to the election campaign, it is with this group of women, the 25 to 34-year-olds, that the party can count on its strongest support, with more than half for Labour.

In the 18 to 24-year-old bracket, young women have traditionally been more pro-Labour than their male counterparts but the Mori polling indicated that this would be reversed at the general election. Although young women eventually did come back to Labour at the election, this wobble may well have been a result of the Iraq war. Meanwhile, in the important group of women voters over 55, who cast more than one in five votes, the polling before the election indicated that Labour would manage to maintain support at pretty much the same level.

So it does appear that Labour’s tactic of targeting women with school-aged children worked for the party. But Labour also missed opportunities with women voters.

The party missed a trick by relegating its many talented women MPs to backline duties for much of the campaign. Women aged 18 to 24 are particularly disengaged and it has been shown that the presence of women MPs can help women feel more connected to politics. With older women, pensions are the key issue. Many are still disadvantaged by the state pension system – just 13 per cent of women qualify for the full state pension in their own right, compared to 98 per cent of men. Polling commissioned jointly by Fawcett and Age Concern showed that half of women voters aged 55 and over would be swayed by a strong pensions policy. Yet Labour’s election manifesto did not put forward a solution to the pensions problems faced specifically by women.

And even though Labour did well with its ‘schoolgate mums’, Fawcett has found a large amount of frustration that politicians of all parties are still equating women’s concerns so narrowly with children. Women want to see men brought much more into debates on childcare and worklife balance and to see other issues such as the pay gap, carers and violence against women come to the fore.

This underlines part of the problem with New Labour and its approach to women – it is rather piecemeal. For example, the government has certainly helped some women’s immediate financial situation, in particular single women pensioners and lone mothers, but it has not tackled the root causes of economic inequality for women. It has introduced some good policies on violence against women – but provision is patchy and many women are still being failed by the system.

In this third term, the Fawcett Society is calling upon the government to make gender equality a political priority that runs all the way through decision-making. It would be the perfect way to repay that debt of gratitude.

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Sue Tibballs

Sue Tibballs is chair of the Fawcett Society

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