Gender Gaps and Conservative Women: Sitting to the Left of their Men

Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs

There has been plenty of media copy over this Parliament apparently documenting the Conservative party’s trouble in keeping the woman voter happy. Many of these stories are on rather shaky ground.1

The gender gap in voting intention in the UK is far from that observed in the US; where more women are clearly in the Democrat camp. Sure, the longstanding pro-Conservative traditional gender gap amongst women declined in the late 1980s and closed in the 1990s. New Labour under Tony Blair were successful in challenging the Conservative advantage among women voters, by winning the younger women’s vote.2 But the appearance of a ‘modern gender gap’, one observed in a good number of western democracies – has not become established here.

Britain remains an international outlier. In part this is to do with a gender generation gap in the UK, with younger women’s greater tendency to vote Labour negated/matched by older women’s tendency to prefer the Conservative party. But it is also about inter-party competition. By the time of the 2010 general election, and following an explicit appeal to women as part of its modernization strategy, the Conservative party managed in particular to regain the votes of the 40-something working women/mother.

Playing the ‘politics of catch up’, the 2010 Conservative party manifesto made a series of what can be considered liberally feminist policy offerings – on equal pay, flexible working, and maternity and paternity leave and pay.3  Cameron was also vocal in talking about increasing the number of Conservative women MPs. But if you were to believe the press, it has all been downhill for the Tories since then. The most recent blog 4 suggests a slight pro-Labour preference amongst women but this remains as yet far from the re-emergence of a modern gender gap.

The absence of an aggregate level sex gap amongst voters does not mean however that sex and gender differences do not play out in UK electoral politics. There may very well be intra-party sex differences in political attitudes. Childs and Webb’s (2012) study 5 of the Conservatives (2005-2010) found evidence that Conservative women party members were to the left of its men on a series of left/right indicators. This finding begged the question of whether such an intra-party sex gap held for Conservative supporters and identifiers. If so then this might be a source of a gender gap in voting in 2015. In other words, if Conservative women voters are differently positioned vis a vis Conservative male voters, and the Party plumps for a position closer to the men, then it is possible that Conservative women voters will turn away.

Analysis of the 2010 BES finds that Conservative women supporters are indeed to the left of Conservative men: 6

  • There is a small but statistically significant difference in the self-placement of women and men on the ‘tax/spend’ question
  • The mean response for men was 5.09 and 5.83 for women
  • On attitudes towards tax and spend, we see women .74 of a point further towards the increase taxes and spending pole of the scale than men, again a relationship that is highly statistically significant.

Importantly, we test for a number of reasons that might explain these findings and are able to demonstrate that these intra-party sex differences are not the result of women’s greater employment in the public sector, their parental status, their tendency to respond with neutral answers, women’s lower income, or women’s greater egalitarianism across a number of issues.

Using BES CMS data we are also able to show fairly sizeable sex gaps amongst Conservative identifiers in support of a number of potential cuts to public expenditure. The most sizeable sex gaps are evident in support of: 7

  • Raising the pension age (12 percent)
  • Reducing child tax credit (11 percent)
  • Reducing the NHS by 5 percent (10 percent)

In a cumulative scale, the mean response for men Conservative identifiers was 6.10 whereas for women the mean was 5.41 – a statistically significant difference. Moreover, this sex gap amongst Conservative supporters is bigger than that amongst Labour supporters, suggesting that the Conservative party faces a particularly stark sex gap in left/right economic attitudes.

These intra-party sex differences have the potential to become significant for the Conservatives if tax and spend comes to dominate the general election agenda. The party cannot afford to forget about the interests of Conservative women voters who are less in favour of cuts than men; to do otherwise risks losing their votes. This prompts a question also of party management. Finally, and in terms of women MPs, these findings reinforce an earlier conclusion: Conservative women may not necessarily want women MPs but they need them to represent their attitudes.8

  • 1 Campbell, R. (2012). ‘What do we really know about women voters? Gender, elections and public opinion.’ Political Quarterly 83(4):703-10.
  • 2 Campbell, R. 2006. Gender and the Vote in Britain. Colchester, Essex: ECPR Press.
  • 3 Campbell, R. and Childs, S. ‘What the Coalition Did for Women’ A New Gender Consensus, Coalition Division and Gendered Austerity, in Seldon, A. and Fubbm F, (2015) (Cambridge: CUP)
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  • 8 Campbell, R., Childs, S. & Lovenduski, J. (2010). Do Women Need Women Representatives? British Journal of Political Science. 40(1): 171-194.
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