All of the three major parties have prioritised what I call “winning-over-women” campaigns (WOWs), in preparation for what The Independent has called “the mother of all elections”. The leaders have participated in Women’s Hour’s “winning women’s votes” initiative in recent weeks, got their spouses more involved in the race, and spoken candidly to women’s mags (always nice to know courtesy of Glamour that Cameron likes Jedward).
Since the achievement of universal suffrage in this country, women have held the key to the general election result. Overall, they tend to be more conservative than men (although the 18-24 age group is more left-inclined); if women didn’t have the vote, Labour would have won every election since WWII. Yet British women bucked the trend in 1997 by throwing their support whole-heartedly behind New Labour, which was where it remained until after the 2005 election. If only women had voted in the last electon, Labour’s majority would have been around 90 seats, compared with a paltry 23 seats if only men had voted.
Yet polls suggest convincingly that the gender gap in voting intention has reverted to the pre-’97 norm. Female support for Labour fell further and faster in 2006 than male support, and more recent polls indicate that women are more likely than men to believe that a Conservative government cares more about public services and would run them more efficiently.
Still, the battle isn’t over and all parties continue with their WOW campaigns. As the Labour Party has highlighted 53 seats where mothers could make all the difference, these campaigns are also focused on winning over the family woman. Brown promised a new legal right for mothers to choose where they give birth and improve maternity services in his Mother’s Day web chat with Netmums members. On the same day, Samantha Cameron gave her first full TV interview – a Tory bid to broaden Cameron’s appeal to women by portraying him as Mr Normal Family Man. In addition, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories have all pledged generous maternity/paternity leave packages.
I choose not to get too wrapped up in the debate over the female vote. It implies that all British women are sufficiently homogeneous to be packaged neatly into a single target-market box, the key for which belongs to the political party with the superior WOW campaign. Moreover, we’re not all 30-something mothers who care about child tax credits.
As a final-year student who will shortly be seeking employment, I care about equal employment opportunities and a reduction in the gender pay gap. Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill would compel employers of more than 250 workers to disclose gender pay differentials, which is a step in the right direction. The Lib Dems also propose compulsory equal pay audits for employers. The Tories promise stronger anti-discrimination legislation, but have not revealed any details. I would also love to see more women MPs and thus regard women-only shortlists as essential, if not ideal. Only one in five MPs are women, putting Britain behind even North Korea in the global league table of women in parliament. The parties have been very quiet about this grave problem of representation. If the parties become more vocal on these issues and don’t just focus on parental leave and childcare in the election run-up, I’ll give more credit to the WOW campaigns. I’m not dismissing family issues because of course they matter a great deal, but rather pointing out the women’s issues that exist outside of motherhood.