The politics of gender have bubbled to the surface of political debate. Some Tories are worried that women are deserting them in such numbers that the party will lose the next election. One widely reported ICM poll last week showed that while 36% of men would vote Labour, the figure rises to 51% among women. Last month the founder of an education think tank narrowed the problem even further, identifying women in the middle social grades, C1 and C2, who have ‘lost faith in the Conservative party’.
Don’t believe it. It is not complete nonsense, but nearly so. Take that ICM poll. ICM is one of Britain’s best polling companies. But, like YouGov, it cannot repeal the laws of probability. Those 51-36 stories were based on tiny samples: 218 men and 234 women. The margins of error were huge. At the very least, the stories should have carried health warnings. (I don’t blame ICM: the report on their own website does not refer to this remarkable gender gap.)
So what is really going on? YouGov’s data suggest seven home truths:
1. MEN AND WOMEN VOTE IN SIMILAR WAYS…
Traditionally, women have been slightly more Conservative than men in British elections. The gap closed in the 1990s. In 2010 women were probably slightly more Labour than men, but the gender gap (which YouGov measured at the time from responses of more than 90,000 electors) was tiny. Our best estimate of the current position is based on the 33,000 people we questioned last month. This shows women dividing Labour 44%, Conservative 33%, and men dividing 42-32%. We reckon that as far as Labour’s vote share is concerned, the gender gap is two points, not 15.
As for those pesky C1s and C2s, the swing to Labour in each social class since 2010 has been: ABs 8%, C1s 8%, C2s 8%, DEs 11%. Within each group, the swing has been virtually identical for men and women. The real story about social class relates to DEs – those with the least-skilled jobs, or living on state benefits. For them, the political impact of higher tax allowances, designed to help low-paid workers most, has been outweighed by cuts (actual and feared) in public services and the coalition’s plans to curb welfare spending.
2. ...ARE EQUALLY WARY OF THE PARTIES AND THEIR LEADERS…
When people are asked which party most ‘wants broadly the kind of society I want’, men divide 31% Labour, 27% Conservative, while women divide 26-22%. In other words, Labour leads by four points among both. The big difference is that 40% of women say ‘none of them’ or ‘don’t know’; the figure for men is just 29%. But this reflects something that is common to the great majority of polling questions: more women decline to take sides.
As for the approval ratings of the three main party leaders, these are the figures from our latest Sunday Times poll:
% saying they are doing...
% saying they are doing...
|Well||Badly||Net score||Well||Badly||Net score|
Thus the relative positions of the party leaders are much the same for men and women. For all three, similar numbers of men and women agree they are doing well; but in each case, women are less likely to say ‘badly’ and more likely to say ‘don’t know’.
3. …AND WORRY ABOUT THE SAME THINGS…
We regularly ask people which three or four issues, from a list of 12, are the most important ‘facing you and your family’. Here are our latest figures:
|Women %||Men %||Difference|
|Family life and childcare||17||14||3|
|Immigration and asylum||14||17||-3|
On only one issue, health, is the gap more than five points. On the rest it is too small to make any practical difference. Plainly, wise politicians take account of the people’s priorities; but it is wrong to suppose that those priorities are dictated by gender rather than, say, age, circumstance, experience or social class.
4. …BUT WOMEN ARE MORE PESSIMISTIC...
One area where there is a modest but consistent difference concerns the way things are heading:
|Q. How do you think the financial situation of your household will change over the next 12 months?|
|% saying 'better'||8||13|
|% saying 'worse'||54||47|
It’s much the same when we ask people about the next two-to-three years. 73% of women, compared with 64% of men, fear they will ‘not have enough money to live comfortably’; and 74% of women, compared with 66% of men fear they will ‘suffer directly from cuts in spending on public services such as health, education and welfare’.
Those differences are statistically significant. However, they are not vast. Both men and women are pessimistic; it’s just that the degree of pessimism varies slightly.
5. …MORE WARY OF THE EUROPEAN UNION…
In our most recent survey on British membership of the European Union, shortly after the prime minister’s recent speech, women told us that, on balance, they would vote to leave the EU while slightly more men would vote to stay in:
|Q. If there was a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, how would you vote?|
|Women %||Men %||Difference|
|Remain in EU||32||42||-10|
|Not sure / would not vote||28||19||9|
6. ...AND CONSISTENTLY BACK MILITARY ACTION LESS THAN MEN...
Consider these figures from the past ten years:
|March 2003: % supporting British participation in Iraq war||43||63|
|March 2011: % supporting British military action in Libya||37||53|
|Jan 2013: % supporting help for France in Mali||35||58|
|Jan 2013: % saying Prince William should serve Afghanistan||53||68|
There seems to be something close to a cast-iron rule: when it comes to military action, there is a persistent gender gap of around 20 points. Politicians, sociologists, anthropologists and biologists might usefully discuss its causes. If they conclude that the differences are deep-seated, they should then ask themselves this question: why is the gap so small?
7. …BUT OVERALL THE SIMILARITIES MATTER FAR MORE THAN THE DIFFERENCES
Most of the time, men and women view politics in much the same way. Occasionally we find a gender gap of ten points or so when we ask people whether they are for or against a particular policy. But these are rare, and only in the case of military action are they consistently more than ten points. Most of the time, the levels of disagreement between men and women are negligible. Where differences are real, they are modest. On Europe, and fears for the future, the level of agreement is 90%, and on military action around 80%.
Does this mean that politicians can safely disregard such issues as equal pay, support for single mothers, nursery provision, domestic violence, the rights of part-time workers, women’s state pensions, and the lack of women in boardrooms and Parliament? Absolutely not. Indeed, the lack of a gender gap in our political attitudes is a reason for taking these things more seriously, not less. By attending to them, we create a better, fairer society, and this is an ambition that inspires millions of men as well as millions of women. Likewise, imagine a less hectoring way of debating politics in Parliament and in our TV studios. This is sometimes lazily labelled as a more feminine form of discourse. In fact, it would appeal to most voters regardless of gender. To be sure, women dislike politicians who shout at their rivals and fail to give straight answers to straight questions. But most men dislike these things, too. The gap between men and women is sometimes portrayed as a chasm. Our data suggest that it is seldom more than a hairline crack.