Gordon Brown has been criticised for not taking women seriously in the past, but a new poll suggests that he might want to pay them a bit more attention. A new gender gap appears to be splitting the electorate as women become increasingly convinced that the Tories will deliver better public services after 2010.
If any stereotypes about tight-walleted women in Thatcherite clothing are springing to mind, you can put them away now. The YouGov poll conducted for the Fabian Women’s Network doesn’t indicate that women prefer the Tories because they dislike public services; but because they support them. Out of the 2,420 people polled, only 26% of women believed that services would deteriorate under Cameron, compared to 36% of men. Women don’t just think that the Tories would run our public services more efficiently than Labour, they also believe that they care more about them.
Such news should ruffle Brown’s feathers. Until Blair charmed Britain’s ladies, most of them voted blue, carrying the overall outcome of our elections with them. According to Andrew Grice in the Independent today, experts calculate that if women had not been given the vote, Labour would have ruled more or less uninterrupted since 1945. However, a helpful graph on Left Foot Forward points out that over the last thirty years, Labour has managed to close the gap – in 2005, women were actually more likely to vote Labour than men. We cannot afford a reversal.
In contrast to the majority of women, I do think Labour would be better at running Britain’s public services. But I understand why others might not. Labour’s commitment to the public sector no longer seems to come from the heart, but from political pragmatism. Rather than celebrating the achievements of public sector workers, ministers are suspicious of being aligned too closely with them. Their history has left them wary of expressing – oooh scary word – “ideological” support for the public sector. This leads to an ambiguous double-edged approach to services that isn’t just hypocritical, it’s also harder to trust. Over the weekend I heard Harriet Harman say investment was the way forward, today Mandelson says that Labour might stand for cuts after all. To solve this, Brown needs to become a little more black and white.
With women doing the majority of caring in this society (see report p.2), they are more likely to interact with public services on a regular basis, and more likely to care about getting them right. But this isn’t just a matter for the female heart; it’s also about the female brain. Only 14% of women – compared to 19% of men – believe that Labour would be the most efficient at running public services, whilst 25% of women think that a Cameron administration would deliver more cardios for their cash. As Seema Malhotra from the Fabians points out, Labour need to be clearer about where taxpayers’ money goes, what it delivers, and what would happen if it were withdrawn.
Women’s concern for efficiency makes sense. As carers, they are often in charge of domestic budgets. Caring on the frontline, they are the ones that make the case to male partners about exactly how much needs to be saved for food, school uniforms, books and medicine cabinets. More often out at work, men don’t see these needs. British women may think that the men who make up 80% of Parliament will also be too busy with other priorities to leave enough for caring budgets. In such circumstances, they may prefer the Tories to balance the books than to trust mixed Labour promises that might not be kept. To prevent women sleepwalking into belittling the quality of the services they value, we need to address these concerns.
An alternative version of this post first appeared at Comment is Free.