When considering how best to maintain his recent polling surge Cameron would do well to ignore the media’s obsession with UKIP. Despite the Eurosceptics’ rapid ascent to the political grown-ups’ table, the Conservatives face the prospect of another potentially much more serious psephological implosion: the female vote.
Cameron, according to a poll by Ipsos Mori, is widely perceived amongst female voters as being out of touch (that most feared of Conservative ailments) and is struggling to prevent his Cabinet from resembling an old boys’ club. Polling consistently points to widespread disaffection with the Conservatives amongst the nation’s voting women – a recent YouGov poll had them at a seven point deficit to Labour amongst female voters.
Cameron will observe with envy Angela Merkel’s success in regaining the conservative CDU’s status as the women’s party in Germany, where a recent survey found that 63% of the nation’s approximately 33 million voting age women support her Chancellorship.
In opposition, Cameron pledged that a third of ministerial posts would be filled by women and pushed for all-female shortlists. However, as with “all the green crap”, there was a notable departure from idealistic rhetoric on entering Government.
The recent messy departure of Maria Miller from Government has left Cameron with only three female cabinet ministers. Interestingly, he defied the bookies’ expectations by installing Sajid Javid as Miller’s replacement, possibly belying Conservative insecurity about appearance and representation around the Cabinet table; given that the appointment left the new women’s minister reporting to a man Cameron must have been sure of the appointment’s importance.
Labour meanwhile is well aware of its strength here. A recent Ipsos Mori poll found Labour’s lead amongst women to be three times greater than among men. Miliband’s triumphant “a picture tells a thousand words” stunt, pointing out the very male Coalition front bench earlier in the year at PMQs, neatly encapsulated Labour’s confidence and the Tories’ vulnerability.
The constant visibility of powerful Labour women, including Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harman and Rachel Reeves, ensures that Labour looks more like the people who might vote for it. Aside from issues around image, it is important to bear in mind though that women’s real lives matter as well: it is notable for example that another recent YouGov poll suggested that the economic recovery is being felt significantly less by women than by men.
Given the stuttering modernisation process and his choices of promotion in the past, Cameron’s strategy to neutralise the Labour gender gap will likely have to rely more on female-friendly policies, rather than the proactive promotions of women to the front bench. His challenge will be managing the implementation of those policies in the face of unrelenting focus on UKIP’s challenge from the right.