Labour is losing out as older women switch back to the Tories, warns Deborah Mattinson
Analysis of the current demographics of voting behaviour shows that Labour’s strength with women voters, strength that kept Labour in government in 2001 and 2005, is ebbing away as older voters abandon the party. Our ageing population, and older voters’ tendency to turn out, mean that Labour cannot win again unless this is addressed.
Labour has a historic gender gap challenge. Back in 1989, Patricia Hewitt, then communications director to the leader, Neil Kinnock, and I co-authored a Fabian Society pamphlet setting out a stark truth: women voters had blighted Labour’s electoral chances for years. We wrote, ‘Until very recently, it was accepted political wisdom that women were more Conservative than men … there is a gender gap. And it has always worked in the Tories’ favour’. As we pointed out then, if the suffragettes had not won the vote for women Labour would have been victorious at every election since the second world war.
Our research showed that Labour was doing relatively well among younger women but relatively badly among older ones. We argued that this situation was likely to worsen as a demographic time-bomb was waiting for Labour: dramatically improved life expectancy meant there would be many more older voters in the future.
Using polling and focus groups to better understand women voters’ different take on politics, we prescribed a new focus on the family‑friendly policies that women cared most about: public services, childcare, family finances. We argued for more prominent women politicians, and a dramatically different, more women-friendly, communications approach. We concentrated our efforts on those crucial older women voters.
In the decade that followed the Labour party was transformed. In 1997 some 44 per cent of women voted Labour – up 10 per cent from 1992. Post-election analysis revealed that the single biggest triumph was converting that most intransigent group: women over the age of 55. It was this group who shifted to Labour in greatest numbers.
This was achieved by a compelling policy offer, encapsulated in the innovative pledge card which spoke eloquently to Labour’s different take on politics. The embodiment of this difference was the Labour leader himself: a youthful family man the like of which had never been seen in Downing Street before. And as well as Tony Blair himself there were the so-called ‘Blair babes’. Much mocked by the media (the Times headlined the iconic photo of newly elected women members of parliament, ‘Who will save the utterly dowdy class of ’97 from years of polyester?’). Women voters, however, saw it differently. In focus groups at the time one said, ‘It [that picture] was one of the things that made me feel optimistic. This was a really fresh beginning’. Another observed, ‘I wondered if politicians would start to do things that I liked more if someone just like me could be a politician’.
Labour went on to maintain its positive poll position in 2001, but, as the election approached in 2005, things looked much more difficult. Labour now lagged behind the Conservatives in the polls and we saw a growing gender attitude gap. Women were significantly less happy with the government’s performance, and with the leader’s performance too – this last point being particularly marked. As Times columnist Rachel Sylvester wrote, ‘“Worcester Woman” had become “Let-down Lady”. Women had been so in love with New Labour and Tony Blair. Their disappointment was acute’.
As poll disaster beckoned the campaign team hurriedly rethought its strategy and, drawing on focus group evidence, put the government’s achievements for women centre-stage: nursery provision, child benefit, tax credits and flexible working. Somewhat against the odds Labour won again and analysis revealed that women’s votes had again been crucial: if just men had voted in 2005 the result would have been a hung parliament. If just women had voted Labour’s majority would have doubled to more than 100 seats.
Currently many Labour supporters who recall the party’s performance in the dark days before the 1997 election are pinching themselves right now to remember that this is 2016. That deja vu feeling is particularly pronounced when we look at what has happened to gender differences in voting attitudes and voting intention. At first glance, the polls look positive as we see that women are more likely than men to support Labour’s stance on a number of key policy areas: health, the living wage and nuclear disarmament. However, closer scrutiny shows that this data masks worrying negative attitudes towards the party more widely and towards its leader specifically.
BritainThinks’ recent polling reveals particular problems with older women voters, who are significantly more likely to rate David Cameron over Jeremy Corbyn. Older women are twice as likely to see Cameron as ‘very effective’ while almost two-thirds of them rate Corbyn as ‘very ineffective’. Older women are also more likely to think that Cameron, not Corbyn, will protect public services (+10 per cent), more likely to think that Cameron has the best policies for the economy (+35 per cent) and much more likely to think that Cameron, not Corbyn, will ‘take the right decisions in the interest of national security’ (+40 per cent). These attitudinal differences play out in voting intention figures which show a significant difference between younger and older voters: almost half of under-34s favour Labour while more than half of over-65s favour the Conservatives. Once again, Labour is losing with older women.
So what does the future hold for Labour? In 2015 the party won just 26 per cent of the votes of people over the age of 55 while the Conservatives won 43 per cent. Labour has always done less well with older voters, but 2015 showed a marked polarisation that has increased since then and which matters even more now than it did back in 1980s. The population aged 65 and over has grown by 47 per cent since the 1970s and is now almost a fifth of the total, while people over 50 represent a third. And our population will continue to age, with the number of people aged over 65 expected to rise by over 40 per cent in the next 15 years to over 16 million.
While mortality rates have improved for men, this age group remains disproportionately more female. Labour has shown in the past that it can mitigate the threat from older voters by appealing directly to older women. It must do so again if it is to win another election.
Deborah Mattinson is a founding director of BritainThinks
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