David Cameron has women’s troubles.
As the number of women out of work reaches a 23 year high the Conservatives party are hemorrhaging female voters, and Downing Street have noticed, setting up plans to win back women with a slew of female-friendly policies.
Yet it looks as though one policy that’s already in progress is likely to further alienate women - including some on Cameron’s own backbenches, with Anna Sobury MP telling HuffPost UK that cuts to legal aid have been identified as a particular problem.
YouGov polling suggests only 11 per cent of women now believe the Conservative party best understands and reflects the views of women voters, compared to 25 per cent for Labour. Just 13 per cent believe David Cameron is the leader who best understands and reflects their views.
Dr Rosie Campbell, a senior lecturer in politics at Birkbeck university says party are rightly "very concerned" about the matter:
“In the past the Labour party went all-out for women’s votes, they had the childcare credits, they've extended equality legislation. When he became leader David Cameron mentioned that the Conservatives were going to be a party for women in his first speech. He really tried to take the Labour party on and he seemed to be successful. But what they are doing now is hemorrhaging those women.”
It’s hard to pinpoint where Tories’ woman troubles began. In January 2011, when a then little-known backbench Conservative MP Dominic Raab wrote an article calling feminists “obnoxious bigots” on the popular website PoliticsHome he was condemned by Labour MPs and members of his own party. Three months on, universities minister David Willetts made headlines for claiming feminism held back working men Then David Cameron was branded "sexist, insulting and patronising" by the Labour party, after repeatedly telling shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Angela Eagle to “calm down, dear” during Prime Minister’s Questions. By May, justice secretary Ken Clarke had infuriated men and women by distinguishing between “serious” and “proper” rape during an appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live.
Even though these incidents don’t remain in the news for very long, Tory MP for Broxtowe - and single mother - Anna Soubry is the first to admit none of it helps.
For Soubry, Clarke’s comments were “cackhanded” but not incorrect. “All rapes are serious but some rapes are even more serious. A child who is raped everyday by her father is obviously more serious than a one-off.”
Instead, it’s about how women tend to perceive government policy, whether it’s angry emails on the coalition’s plans for the NHS, or on tuition fees. And she admits there is a danger of middle-class women “falling out of love with the Conservative party.”
"I think it's a very, very complicated matter because you can't generalise a whole sex. You can't say, 'women think about these issues more than men do’. However you can definitely see trends. One of the things I've found very interesting is that if you look at the rise in tuition fees, I got the most angry emails from mothers.
“A lot of the emails I received about our NHS reforms were from women. I think it is fair to say those sort of issues tend to be of greater concern to women. Women don't tend to take a black and white view of things… they tend to think about things in more detail. There are certain issues which resonate with them more.”
Or it might come down to one four letter word: cuts. Anna Soubry says it’s clear they will impact women more than men.
“We have to persuade people that we are in touch with the needs and desires of all sections of society. And perhaps we haven't done a great job of that… the cuts will affect those women more profoundly. It's a very sad fact but hopefully when the growth comes, they will see why we had to do that.”
And there are specific policies which backbench MPs are concerned about: "We're not happy about the changes in legal aid… we're fearful they will affect women who are separating from husbands. We've identified that as a problem”, Soubry admits.
Dr Rosie Campbell says cuts to child benefit for those who pay the 40% tax amounts to Conservatives targeting their “core group… they didn't have their eyes open.”
“They're trying to think of ways to cut across the nation, they say they are taking benefits away from richer people – and it might play quite well broadly. But I think what happened was they didn't really do a gender impact. This isn't really something they care about very deeply. Lots of Conservatives aren't really concerned about gender relations, but David Cameron was. Now they're seeing an impact and they are concerned.”
It’s not all doom and gloom in terms of coalition policies, however. Dr Campbell says Nick Clegg’s plan to allow men to take share paternity leave was “radical” – but its impact among voters may be negligable in electoral terms.
“That sharing aspect doesn't come in until 2015, they're obviously hoping it will come in just in time for an election.”
But the Fawcett society, who challenged the 2010 budget in the High Court over claims the cuts hit women the hardest, say government’s current efforts to reach out to women are simply spin.
“Women want to know how the government intends to tackle rising female unemployment, the gender pay gap, the rising cost of childcare, the hole left in many women's pockets by the wage freeze and benefit reforms”, they said in a statement.
And anecdotally, some women are furious. They seethe on Mumsnet forums, as the pinch on family budgets increases.
“I think women are feeling it more than men. There’s a lot of compounding effects that's disproportionately impacting on women And if women turn away from the Conservative party, they could be in serious trouble. If they get a significant group of women class women turning away, that really could change the results of the next election”, Dr Campbell says.
But for Soubry, some of the criticism against the Conservatives, and specifically David Cameron is unfair.
“I think the prime minister definitely gets equality. And I think you often judge somebody by not only how they live their own life but who they are married to. The prime minister is married to an intelligent, capable woman who has chosen to work, and I think that says a great deal about him.
“I think that shows that he is in touch with what a lot of women want to do. I think that he has, at times, unfortunately, had an image problem. I was there when he said, 'calm down, dear'… he was not being sexist or anti-women or anything else.”
She adds: “I do know if you approach the prime minister and say this is not a great idea because of the effect it has on women and how we are seen, he absolutely listens and he gets it. I have had that conversation with him when it came to Ken Clarke's remarks on rape.”
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