The Women Problem: who is winning the battle for Britain's female vote?

Anushka Asthana takes a look at the findings from the Mumsnet and Ipsos MORI report into the political views of the UK's women voters - and finds that no party can afford to be complacent.

If there is one long-term trend that the Prime Minister David Cameron is unlikely to have missed it is this: his party's historic popularity with women has been waning over time.

In 1992, the Conservatives attracted more female votes than male ones; by 2010 - in a political battle dubbed by the press the 'Mumsnet election' - this had ceased to be the case.

Mr Cameron polled a 10-point lead over Labour among men in that General Election. With women the gap was halved, to just five points.

But what drives that gender difference? And why is it that in subsequent years, critics have branded the Prime Minister and his party as anti-women in both substance and style?

First came the claims that the axe of Government cuts was poised to fall disproportionately on the nation's women. And then that infamous "calm down, dear" moment, in which Mr Cameron emulated Michael Winner when addressing a female opposition MP - three words flung across the House of Commons' chamber that saw Cameron accused of being "sexist, patronising and insulting".

Key advisers have insisted to journalists that he is no such thing, describing him instead as a feminist. Yet one fact is undeniable: as Mr Cameron gears up for his penultimate party conference before the next General Election, he and his party's so-called "women problem" has yet to subside.

With female voters, Labour is well ahead - either because it is successfully attracting women, or because the parties of Government are driving them away.

Fresh research and analysis carried out by Mumsnet and Ipsos MORI, presented in this report, lays bare the scale of the challenge.

If things seemed bad in 2010, they are worse in 2013. This study reveals current levels of public opinion:

  • Mr Cameron's party trails the Opposition by 13-points among female voters - three times the gap among men (four points).
  • 42% of women would back Labour compared to just 29% who would vote Conservative, according to Ipsos MORI's aggregation of all interviews between January and July 2013. While the Conservative share among men (31%) is similar to that among women, men are less likely to back Labour (35%).
  • Among younger women - aged 18-34 - the gap widens to a hefty 25-point lead for Labour; even with those aged 35 to 54 it is 21 points.
  • The Opposition is also ahead among the groups of women the Conservatives might expect to attract - the most affluent women in top-level professional and executive roles, those working in the private sector and households with mortgages. The fact is that men in similar circumstances are more likely to vote Tory.
  • Six out of 10 women are dissatisfied with the way Mr Cameron is doing his job as Prime Minister - and even more are unhappy with the Government overall.
  • And when asked which party has the best policies on the economy, unemployment, education and health, more women say Labour than the Conservatives. As do they when asked which party best looks after women's interests.

Could another result help explain what is going on? Mr Cameron is seen as by far the most "out of touch" with ordinary people of all the political leaders among both men and women.

But this is no time for Ed Miliband to begin the celebrations. The electoral boost is directed at his political party, and not him. Half of women describe themselves as dissatisfied with the way Mr Miliband is doing his job as Labour leader.

Only a third (33%) of women are satisfied with the Labour leader - in line with satisfaction with the Prime Minister. Women are also more likely to actually like Mr Cameron than Mr Miliband. Perhaps most significantly, Mr Miliband is seen as the less "capable" of the two men among women as well as men.

And the results of additional qualitative Mumsnet research, drawing on the in-depth views of around 100 women, may be uneasy reading for Mr Miliband. Time and again the Labour politician is criticised for a poor leadership style - or described as someone who has made little impression at all. Could it be that his party's lead is more about women turning away from the Tories and Lib Dems and less about a positive step towards Labour?

As for Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister, the data paints a difficult road ahead. His most acute problem is the loss of young voters, according to the analysis.

But Mumsnet users who backed the Lib Dems are frustrated too, arguing that Mr Clegg has failed to maintain the one characteristic they hold most dear in a party leader - integrity.

2015: the battle for the female vote

Mumsnet users who took part in this study say they deplore complacency among political leaders. Labour may be ahead in voting intentions, but the focus groups throw up an overwhelming sense that many remain undecided.

If politicians draw one lesson from this research it should be that large swathes of women are willing to listen and waiting to be convinced.

In 2015, the female vote will be at the heart of the electoral battle once more.

It is clear that all the parties know that. Why else has Labour has worked relentlessly to take advantage of what some call the Tories' Achilles' heel - its perception among female voters? The idea that government cuts come down most harshly on women has become the party's mantra, with Yvette Cooper determined to embed the idea into the mind of the electorate.

Rachel Reeves - now a shadow Cabinet member - scored a political coup early on, forcing a U-turn by demonstrating how pension reforms would hit women in their late 50s most of all.

Internal polling shows the Conservatives are aware of the problem. And it is not just about policies but delivery, too. Mr Cameron's slip in the Commons was followed by another incident in which he described a backbench woman MP as "frustrated".

Attempts to counteract the negative image are underway. Tory MPs determined to reach out to women have set up a special forum, meant to act as a sounding board for ministers on how female voters might react to policy.

Strategists, meanwhile, have worked up plans to emulate Bill Clinton's mid-90s drive to win "soccer moms" by focusing on the issues they most care about. Out came reforms on adoption, sexualisation of children and safety on the Internet.

And as part of the drive the Prime Minister appointed a special adviser specifically tasked with the job of boosting female support. Her inbox has now widened to include education and childcare, an issue that has caused political wrangling between the Coalition partners.

It was this policy that Mr Clegg waded into recently in an attempt to boost his own party's standing with women. He blocked Tory attempts to reduce staff ratios claiming it would not cut childcare costs. Why? Because the Lib Dems believe that pursuing family-friendly policies could be key to winning women back.

These statistics also deliver a further warning not to ignore the success of Nigel Farage's UKIP party. Although more popular among men, he has attracted a small but significant following among women voters.

This research pulls together two key studies: a quantitative analysis of voting intentions split by gender and women's views on political leaders carried out by Ipsos MORI; and qualitative data from five focus groups in which around 100 Mumsnet users provided in-depth answers and debate relating to the political leaders and parties.

It provides a wealth of information that takes us into the minds of women up and down the country. It illustrates what issues female voters care most about; how they feel the parties and their leaders are performing; and what it will take to persuade them to deliver their vote in a particular direction.

The analysis offered by the Mumsnetters who have taken part suggests they are politically astute and motivated. These are the views of a wide range of women in very different circumstances: from single professionals to stay-at-home-mothers to lone parents and working mums all trying to balance the competing demands of their lives.

Of course, they are not one homogenous group who are planning to vote en masse. But there are policies and issues that they are more likely to care about and pay interest to.

This is a chance for politicians to listen to their views. Over the next two years there will be many opportunities to engage further. It would be astute for them to do so. 

Last updated: 18-Sep-2013 at 10:59 AM