Jessica Metheringham explores how the concept of the ‘Female Vote’ tends to cast women as fickle and uninterested in serious politics
Gordon Brown is our Prime Minister, and the general election has been postponed. This is a victory for common sense, but the speculation earlier in the year provided a good opportunity to see how the politicians and the press try to court the ‘Female Vote’.
It’s a strange thing, this Female Vote. From the manner in which the supposedly educated broadsheets talk, one would assume that women were only recently given the vote, and so don’t really know what to do with it.
I have recently read in a number of newspapers the assumption that all women vote Labour. The papers also give the impression, neatly forgetting to mention the 1997 swing to the left, that this has always been the case, and that women are both instinctively left-wing and naturally fickle with their vote. As a political geek who happens to enjoy reading books on politics I’m currently making my way through the Prime Ministers of the 20th Century and I’ve got as far as David Lloyd George. I mention this because the authors of all the books in the box-set are agreed that giving women the vote swelled the ranks of the Tory faithful, was of little use to the Liberals and a blow to socialists. This is, of course, not because women are inherently conservative, but because initially the vote was given only to women over the age of 30 with some form of property or income. It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women and men received the right to vote on equal terms, and it was not until 1950 that Oxford and Cambridge universities lost the right to their own representatives in Parliament.
It is true that polling figures for male and female groups do give slightly different results. The Fawcett Society gives these figures for the 2005 election: Labour polled 38% women and 34% men, the Conservatives polled 36% women and 38% men, and the Liberal Democrats polled 22% women and 18% women. It is also acknowledged that the female swing in 1997 was greater than the male swing – but not by much. Out of these slight differences newspapers fill pages with myths about the fickle Female Vote.
It appears that our votes can be courted by wearing a nice suit and speaking in a deep voice. Or, at least so this piece, written in a Bridget Jones style by Sandra Parsons of The Times, indicated. The article is titled “Two men want me. Oh what should I do?” It is put under the “columnist” section, not the “politics” section. With a title like that, who would read it but the most bored of civil servants (me) and the most relationship-hungry women, who are presumably their target market? Really, such a title doesn’t suggest the greatest respect for the people they are trying to interest in politics.
However, had it had been re-packaged and correctly classed as “politics”, I may well have thought it interesting and sarcastic. Parsons does hit on some observations I’ve made myself, such as this one: “You can’t imagine Gordon doing the dishes or the cooking, loading the washing machine or getting up in the middle of the night to change a nappy – he’s far too busy doing manly things, like thinking deep, important thoughts. All that domestic stuff can be left to a woman who stays in the background and who knows her place (and I’m pretty sure that place is always two steps behind Gordon).”
The problem is that some of the article really is couched in the most unbearable terms: “Come to think of it, I’m not sure Gordon really cares what I think or what I feel – he’s more of a ‘how did I do?’ type, whereas Dave, I think, might ask ‘how was it for you?'” The suggestion that the Female Vote follows a fickle heart rather than a (presumably empty) head could not be laid on stronger.
I find this insulting. There are many people who are not in the slightest interested in politics, but to assume that women chose the party they vote for based on the appearance of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition? Please. Image is important, but it’s certainly not the case that the Male Vote is based on immigration and transport policies while the Female Vote depends on how dishy the candidate is.
The Times is not the only newspaper to assume that women’s interest in politics goes only as far as which of the candidates they feel ‘safest’ with. Politics is simply not the sort of thing that women are supposed to be interested in – although strangely enough women are supposed to be concerned about education, health, the environment. I suppose these things don’t count as ‘proper’ politics, probably because they don’t involve blowing other countries up.
The interesting thing is that when I was a political researcher I cannot recall coming across this assumption. It is, it seems, an assumption the media makes. Policy wonks in party HQ campaign offices are more interested with dividing potential voters into groups based on location, age and perceived class. There is talk of ‘Mondeo Man’ and ‘Worchester Woman’ as types of voters, but in general both male and female voters are assumed to be intelligent human beings who will be interested in the local school, or the local town centre, or the local swimming pool.
The party-political conferences are the platform for new ideas. Many policies will have roots in a conference speech somewhere, and MPs are keen to gauge voter reactions. In every manifesto there is at least one policy designed to appeal to the mythical Female Vote: better childcare, or cleaner hospitals, or better schools.
But did any truly female-friendly policies come out of the various conferences, held earlier this year? What new and exciting ideas, brought forward by our new and exciting ministers, would be discussed? Would anyone tackle the widening pay gap between men and women, the problems of sex trafficking and rape trails, or even the continued difficulties many new parents face? The answer is, um, not really.
The Lib Dems spouted a lot of exciting stuff about making the country more equal. True, they were talking about the poverty gap, but perhaps they will get round to the gender gap sometime. You know, when they get back into power. Which they have been out of since Asquith. (Lloyd George may have been Liberal, but his government was a coalition.)
The Conservatives, bless their cotton socks, decided to go on about marriage. Being true blue, everything comes down to money, so they decided to reward people who make a go of exchanging vows by giving them £20 a week in tax credits. Trouble with this policy is that it has a slight whiff of outdated gender roles, which is certainly not the smartest move in the book. Cameron has a long way to go before he catches up with the likes of Caroline Spelman MP and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and starts speaking about sex trafficking, rape, disenfranchisement and discrimination.
(It was suggested on the F-Word blog on Oct 4th that Warsi and the Conservative Women’s Organisation were rather narrow minded about issues which affected Muslim women, concentrating on the bad rather than the good. I was at their first event about forced marriage, and I couldn’t detect a sense of cultural superiority or stereotyping from any of the participants. One must remember that these are discussions on legislation, and so are bound to explore on what is going wrong and could be changed, not to congratulate themselves on what is already right.)
Cameron might wish to consider borrowing some female-friendly policy from Warsi before the Conservative Women’s Organisation come down on him with a righteous thundering of Valkyries. I have tremendous respect for the CWO and, as part of the policy review process, they command more power than many outside the Conservative Party give them credit for.
It was with a great deal of satisfaction that I realised that Andrew Pelling MP, suspected of beating his wife, was bailed until 2nd October. Why? Because this meant that he would miss the most important part of the Tory conference. Seeing as the conference was in Blackpool and Pelling is MP for Croydon, no doubt this completely wrecked his weekend. That’s if he was even allowed to go: the Conservatives quickly removed the Whip from him. Outside the Westminster bubble this might not sound like a great deal, but it’s the tolling of the funeral bell for his career, particularly as Croydon has not yet selected a candidate for the next election. As Pelling is a backbencher, removing the Whip is all the Party can do: an MP can only be sacked by the people who elected them. Personally, I hope Lucy Pelling, his now estranged wife, is chosen as the next Conservative candidate for Croydon.
As for the Labour conference, I must applaud the efforts of Hazel Blears to raise the issue of council representation. There are simply not enough women and ethic minorities standing as councillors. I recognise that with the unliveable levels of pay, the few people who will have time to sit on a council are going to be middle-class retired folk, but really, if that was the only factor you would expect a couple more of them to be women, what with women living slightly longer. Now let’s get on to the issue of female MPs, shall we? Are the Conservatives listening at the back?
Just as an aside, I’ve actually looked at a number of council websites recently (it’s my job, not for fun) and I am struck by the ridiculous attitude some of them have to titles. Councillor Fred Bloggs is listed on the site next to Councillor Mrs Jane Smith and even Councillor Ms Jane Smith. Why should the ladies have the added title while the gentlemen manage quite well on “Councillor”? In fact, we know all these folk are Councillors (that’s why their pictures are up there) so why do they need any title at all – won’t Jane Smith and Fred Bloggs do well enough? Tell me, am I being ridiculously contrary?
Back to Labour. I was reassured to hear prior to the conference season that a number of female ministers were looking at the legal status of prostitution, and in particular of punters buying sexual services. The question explored in some of the newspapers was whether the customers should be criminalised rather than the women selling services. However, I was disappointed to hear nothing more about it. Surely this is a subject worthy of conference time?
Perhaps there were great ideas at all three conferences which simply went unreported. The press wield a remarkable amount of power: only a few months ago, they came within a whisker of forcing Brown to call an election.
The Daily Mail chose to report the Labour conference by focusing on what Sarah Brown was wearing. In a two page spread, Brown, who the Mail has referred to as a “former career girl” since 2006, was praised for looking better than Cherie Blair. Never mind that Brown worked in PR (thus presumably learning how to manage an image) and Blair was a highly successful lawyer who gave up her own political ambitions to support her husband and gave birth to her fourth child while living in Downing Street. No, what the Mail thought mattered to the Female Vote was how well Brown matched her shoes with her handbag. Is it perhaps that the hacks at the Daily Mail don’t really understand Public Relations and so think it a “suitable” career for a lady? I don’t really understand PR either, but in the cut-throat business world I suspect it takes nerves of steel.
Talking about brands and prime ministers, Samantha Cameron has also come under fire, albeit gently, from The Guardian. This article suggests she does not distinguish carefully enough between the brand which she promotes for a living (she is creative director of expensive stationery company Smythson) and the brand her husband promotes as leader of the opposition.
Much as I personally dislike branded items, I do feel sorry for Cameron. Balancing such interwoven personal image and professional creative style must be hard enough without your partner’s critics hiding around every corner. If he, as a possible future prime minister, is justified in using his personal life to support his career (and it could hardly be otherwise – do you really want all your ministers to make a choice between clocking off at 5:30pm and having no personal life?) then she, working in a creative industry, must equally be allowed to draw inspiration from the world she sees around her.
Women are just as genuinely political as everyone else, so don’t let the media tell you otherwise. We’re not being fickle with our vote: we’re carefully accessing the political zeitgeist.