Claire Annesley and Francesca Gains
As the UK party manifestos are launched this week, ahead of a tightly fought election battle, pay close attention to the direct pitch that all parties are making to women in an attempt to capture their votes. They do this for good reason: women form 52% of the electorate, so there are more of us, and women are more likely to decide who to vote for closer to polling day. If we add to this the fact that women have been particularly hard hit by tax and benefit changes during the Coalition years, it means that targeting and mobilising female voters is potentially vital in the key target seats for all parties.
Of course it makes no sense to talk of women voters as a uniform or unified group. Nor can we assume that women’s demands necessarily differ substantially from men’s. As women’s lives increasingly resemble men’s –working in paid employment— the traditional pattern of women voting Conservative, seen in the post-war years, has been eroded to be statistically insignificant. However some sex differences in voting choices are important. For example: age differences are discernible, with the votes of older women seen as helping to deliver John Major’s narrow victory in 1992; and younger women with children helped to contribute to Labour victories in 1997 and 2001. Younger women are more left leaning, but are also less likely to vote than older women.
There are three different kinds of policy promises parties make to target women’s votes: Parties can choose to emphasise the policy areas that women prioritise politically; party manifestos can make a direct appeal to issues that uniquely affect women; or parties can set out policies to improve equality between men and women. So what is on offer to women in the five main UK party manifestos – and Labour’s manifesto for women – all published this week? Here are some highlights:
Policy areas that women prioritise politically
Women – including Conservative women – express greater support for public services in general and they are more strongly opposed to public sector cuts and austerity. Ahead of GE2015 all parties are competing to demonstrate that they will protect the NHS and education: both Labour and UKIP promise, for example, to deliver 8,000 more GPs, 20,000 more nurses. But the Greens have a strong anti-austerity message proposing ‘a larger public sector and higher taxation’ (p. 12) and offering, for example, to extend the public sector caring infrastructure by providing ‘free social care funded by taxation on the same basis as the NHS’ (p. 30). Likewise, the Labour manifesto sets out how it will fund and recruit ‘5,000 new home-care workers’ which the party refers to as ‘a new arm of the NHS – to help care for those with the greatest needs at home’ (p. 36). In contrast, the Lib Dems have gone for an annual ‘£250 Carer’s Bonus’ (p. 67).
Issues that uniquely affect women
Parties have made commitments to improving support for pregnant women and new mothers, with both Labour and UKIP pledging to fund 3000 more midwives. The Conservatives want to ensure that women ‘have access to mental health support during and after pregnancy, while strengthening the health visiting programme for new mothers’ (p. 39) and the Greens plan to ‘make it illegal to stop nursing mothers feeding their babies in a public place’ (p. 27). Women are also directly targeted through measures to tackle violence against women and girls. For example, Labour pledges to publish ‘a Violence against Women and Girls Bill, appoint a commissioner to set minimum standards in tackling domestic and sexual violence, and provide more stable central funding for women’s refuges and Rape Crisis Centres’ (p. 53) while the Conservatives will work ‘to ensure a secure future for specialist FGM and forced marriage units, refuges and rape crisis centres’ (p. 59). The Greens promise to spend £100m over the next Parliament to ‘ensure consistent long-term funding for a national network of Rape Crisis Centres’ (p. 27). Uniquely UKIP has also pledged ahead of GE2015 to abolish the five per cent VAT rate on sanitary products, such as tampons – but only if the UK leaves the European Union.
Policies to improve equality between men and women
Manifestos set out how parties will support women and men to balance work and caring responsibilities. For GE2015 support for childcare is prominent with the Conservatives’ last minute but un-funded pledge to increase the provision of free childcare for three and four year-olds from 15 to 30 hours per week (p.3). Labour’s long-term and costed promise is to increase free childcare for three and four year olds from 15 to 25 hours per week. Additionally, Labour will ‘ensure all primary schools guarantee access to wraparound childcare from 8am to 6pm’ (p. 58) – a policy proposal that UKIP has also adopted (p. 26). The Lib Dem’s pledge is to extend the provision of 15 hours free childcare first to all two year olds, and then to working parents of children aged nine months to and two years (p. 43). Labour has also set out plans to ‘double paternity leave from two to four weeks and increase paternity pay by more than £100 a week’ (p. 58) and to introduce grandparents’ leave, allowing grannies and granddads in paid employment to take up to four unpaid weeks off per year in order to help with childcare. The Lib Dems propose to ‘expand Shared Parental Leave with an additional “use it or lose it” month to encourage fathers to take time off with young children’ (p. 47).
There is one other issue which we think undecided women voters – keen to see the policies they care about, or which affect them or which make gender equality more realisable – must absolutely consider. To really get things done in Government you need women in Parliament to keep up the pressure on ministers to deliver. And you need women in Government with power and resources to steer through policy. Otherwise manifesto promises will remain just that.
In the context of GE2015, getting issues that appeal to women voters into party manifestos is one thing. But aspirational promises which do not make it into the increasingly inevitable post-election coalition agreement are unlikely to get acted on. The next step, then, is to ensure that policies for women are ‘red-lined’ in coalition negotiations and agreements. There is a strong danger that gender equality issues could be sidelined if the party strategists who pushed for ‘women’s issues’ to be included in manifestos are not included in subsequent coalition negotiations.
In terms of women’s representation and inclusion in politics and decision-making there is clear blue water between the two parties who have the opportunity to lead the next coalition Government. The Labour party has long championed women’s representation in Parliament and has promised a gender balanced cabinet. If Labour wins a majority, 50% of labour MPs will be women and Ed Miliband is committed to gender parity in cabinet. The Conservatives – through promoting some prominent and talented women in the last Government –will trail significantly in terms of female representation in the next Parliament and the party continues to face a problem in getting women in the inner sanctums of power, both due to the pipeline issue and the personal commitment of David Cameron.
It is welcome to see the parties reaching out to women voters but undecided women out there should remember: fine words butter no parsnips!