Is There Any Such Thing as the Women's Vote? Politicians Address Female Voters as Exotic, Mysterious Beings Whose Interests Start and End with Health and Childcare. This Alienates Women Much More Effectively Than If Westminster Forgot about Them Altogether, Argues Zoe Williams
Williams, Zoe, New Statesman (1996)
There isn't a politician standing who would deny that there is a crisis in the relationship between women and Westminster. When I say "relationship", I mean "the way in which two or more concepts or people are related". I categorically do not mean that women see their voting allegiances as some nebulous metaphorical love affair, which daft and bizarre idea currently permeates all discussion of the subject.
Voting projections suggest that the problem is most serious for the Labour Party, which in 1997 commanded the support of 44 per cent of women. This time around, it is anticipated that the figure will drop to 36 per cent. However, according to a 2004 poll by the Fawcett Society, female support for the Tories has also fallen off--since 1945, the Conservatives have enjoyed consistently greater approval among women than men. In the 2001 election, the gap was narrow--33 per cent of women, against 32 per cent of men. By last year, only 28 per cent of women were planning to vote for them (compared to 31 per cent of men).
Some, but not the majority, of these women are swinging towards the Liberal Democrats; the rest, particularly those in the 18-24 female bracket, are simply dropping off the political radar. In 2001, only just over a third of women under 24 turned out to vote, the greatest abstention of any section of the demographic. It would be a mistake, however, to target them too exclusively with game MP cameos on youth television shows--women over the age of 55, although unlikely to abstain, score highest on disappointment (64 per cent) with the current government, and constitute one-fifth of the electorate. Furthermore, women have usually been the undecided gender when it comes to elections.
You can take this as the result of floppy, changeable feminine minds, or as a sign that women have a keener analytical sense, and like to read manifestos rather than vote according to habit and tradition. Regardless, we are the Ohio of the impending election, the sexual swing state whose support would not simply make all the difference, but is also flexible enough to be worth pitching for. The question is, how do you pitch for it? The current, cross-party fixation with maternity leave and the under-fives is certainly revealing (if only for its insight into the political imagination--"women ... wombs ... babies!") but is not going to swing it.
Representation has always been a problem, and remains so, Blair's Babes notwithstanding. Labour has 95 women out of 409 members of parliament--23 per cent of its total. The Tories have 14 women MPs, which, even given their meagre ranks, still amounts to a ludicrous 9 per cent of their total. The Lib Dems have a scarcely less laughable 11 per cent--six female members in all. The current figures on how this influences female voting habits (again, from research conducted by the Fawcett Society) show that where a party fields a female candidate, the female turnout increases by four points, while male turnout remains unchanged. So, from a purely practical point of view, the party that introduces all-female shortlists would register a substantial increase in support, but no party pledges to do so. The experience of the Welsh Assembly--the only body in the world with equal numbers of men and women--shows that positive discrimination is the surest and fastest way towards gender parity.
But how great a problem is the overwhelmingly masculine nature of Westminster? Is it really "masculine language" (cited by the Labour MPs Tessa Jowell and Estelle Morris) that alienates female voters? Is it the implication that women are simply not taken seriously enough, by any of the parties, to warrant inclusion as able and rational minds? Is it the absurd misconstruction of women's views that proceeds from representation by people who still see us as basically alien? Is it all of the above, or, conversely, does under-representation even make it into the top ten of women's disenchantments? …