U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is trying to claw back the support of women as polls show growing anger among female voters at his unprecedented spending cuts.
Cameron has told his policy unit to examine proposed legislation to check it is fair to women and he may appoint a special adviser on female issues, two officials familiar with the plans said.
At stake is Cameron’s quest for a parliamentary majority after inconclusive elections in May last year forced his Conservative Party to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. As public-spending cuts bite, women say they are bearing the brunt.
“It’s an established claim that the recession and the public-sector austerity disproportionately affect women,” Justin Fisher, professor of politics at London’s Brunel University, said in a telephone interview. “This allows Cameron to say, ‘look we’re not blind to this, we’re doing something about it.’”
When asked if the coalition government “is good or bad for people like you,” 16 percent of women said it was good, compared with 25 percent of men, according to a YouGov Plc survey of 1,751 voters carried out Nov. 10-11. That compares with 35 percent of women and 39 percent of men who said the coalition was good in a poll of 1,482 voters in June 2010.
While men lost far more jobs than women during the 15-month recession that ended in mid-2009, women are now feeling the pain as hundreds of thousands of government jobs are axed and wages frozen to narrow a budget deficit of 9 percent of gross domestic product.
Females account for two-thirds of public-sector workers overall, many of them employed on a part-time basis. They make up about 75 percent of local-government workers and 77 percent of employees in the National Health Service, the largest employer in Europe with almost 1.6 million people.
Women have lost almost 60 percent of the 300,000 government posts eliminated since Cameron’s 80 billion-pound ($126 billion) program of spending and welfare cuts began in earnest in April, according to the Labour Force Survey, which provides the only analysis of public-sector employment by gender. Government figures on Nov. 16 showed female unemployment increased by 43,000 in the third quarter to a 23-year high of 1.09 million. The female jobless rate was 7.5 percent compared with 9 percent for men.
Women are the main users of public services and are more reliant than men on income from benefits. They also often manage the household finances, making them keenly aware of the sales-tax increase that took effect in January, curbs to child support and cuts to services such as after-school clubs and libraries.
Day of Action
Of 17 billion pounds of tax and benefit changes, 11 billion pounds have fallen on women, the main opposition Labour Party said, citing research by the House of Commons library. The Fawcett Society, an equal-rights campaign group, has organised a “day of action” tomorrow against growing inequality in pay, benefits and services.
“Top of everyone’s agenda is the economy,” said Anna Bird, acting chief executive officer of the London-based Fawcett Society. “Women want to know how the government intends to tackle rising female unemployment, the gender pay gap, the rising cost of child care, the hole left in many women’s pockets by the wage freeze and benefit reforms.”
In a sign on his renewed focus on women, Cameron apologized in October for remarks criticized as derogatory to women, saying in a BBC television interview he recognized he must “do better.”
‘Calm Down, Dear’
In April, Labour demanded Cameron apologize after he told Angela Eagle, then its Treasury spokeswoman, to “calm down, dear” during exchanges in the House of Commons. In September, when one of his own lawmakers, Nadine Dorries, urged the prime minister to show his Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, “who is the boss,” Cameron replied that he knew she was “extremely frustrated” and then joined in the laughter the comment provoked. Dorries, 54, later described the incident as humiliating.
Steve Hilton, the prime minister’s director of strategy, also sparked anger by suggesting the abolition of maternity leave for new mothers.
Cameron has promoted women to key roles in recent months, appointing Conservatives Justine Greening as transport secretary and Chloe Smith as economic secretary to the Treasury. Five of the 29 ministers who attend Cameron’s Cabinet are women, including Home Secretary Theresa May.
In October, the government said it would push back its target date for raising the state pension age to 66 by six months to help 30,000 women who faced seeing their retirement postponed by two years. Cameron has also urged companies to appoint more female directors and pledged to turn around the lives of children in care, boost adoptions and combat the sexualization of children.
Cameron’s office in London said the government is reducing the deficit “fairly,” citing policies to make working and parental leave more flexible and remove 1 million low-paid workers from income tax.
Unless the deficit is tackled, “the impact on women and families will be worse in the long term with less money to deliver the public services that women rely on,” it said in a e-mailed statement.
British political parties ignore the female vote at their peril. In 2005, when male votes were evenly divided at 34 percent for Labour and the Conservatives, it was the split of 38 percent to 32 percent among women that gave Tony Blair his third term.
In 2010, Cameron won 36 percent of women’s votes compared with 31 percent for Labour and 26 percent for the Liberal Democrats, Ipsos MORI Ltd. said in its estimated breakdown of the poll, based on surveys of 10,211 voters. He trailed Labour by 11 points among women aged 25 to 34, the group he aimed to win over with promises in the Conservative manifesto to “make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe.”
The latest YouGov poll put the Conservatives on 36 percent support among voters nationally, 5 percentage points behind Labour. The survey of 1,684 adults was taken Nov. 15-16.
In modifiying policy to win women’s votes, Cameron has to be careful to keep rank-and-file Conservatives onside. A fake letter was passed around junior lawmakers after the appointment of Smith, who at 29 is the youngest member of the government. The document, purporting to be from a senior Conservative official, said the only way for men to get on in the party was to have a sex change, The Sunday Telegraph newspaper reported on Oct. 23.
“The risk is they end up upsetting their other core constituency, which is men, and anything that looks like giving some groups privilege will encounter resistance,” Brunel’s Fisher said. “You can’t win an election without women, but equally you can’t win without men.”