Seema Malhotra reports on the challenge for Labour of winning the women's vote at the next general election and analyses new Fabian polling on attitudes to public services.
One of New Labour’s biggest achievements was winning the women’s vote; losing it is one of the biggest risks facing Labour today. The gender gap has always been electorally important. In the past women have been more likely to vote Conservative, and the way women have voted overall has been likely to carry the election. But New Labour’s winning coalition shifted the balance enough to win two landslides, and even in the tighter 2005 election younger women were still far more likely to vote Labour than Tory, and more likely to vote Labour than younger men.
But our new polling suggests a much tougher message for Labour as it asks the country for a fourth term: the gender gap has opened up again and with it comes a new challenge on public services.
The polling, conducted by YouGov for the Fabian Women’s Network, shows that younger men are now more likely to vote Labour than women, and that women do not think Labour cares more about the quality of public services than the Tories. This is despite record investment in schools, health services, nursery education and communities – areas that have been seen as core to making Labour’s case to women. Men are more likely to think Labour cares more. Perhaps more surprising is that women are twice as likely as men to say they do not know which party cares the most about public services.
The numbers are particularly worrying because public services have been key to Labour’s electoral success. After 1997, the campaign slogan “more doctors, more nurses” quickly became the message of achievement. Reduced waiting lists became reduced waiting times as one after another, Labour delivered commitment after commitment on public services, with new schools and hospitals appearing across the UK.
And the public sided with Labour, convinced that the Tories could not be trusted with the NHS, and that higher public spending was needed to deliver better public services.
But if it has delivered so well, why is it that Labour has lost its lead? Our polling suggests political failure on two counts.
First there’s been a failure to explain what has been delivered for the amount spent, which has become even more significant at a time of economic instability.
YouGov polling shows that four out of five think money is being wasted in the NHS, and only half think the NHS will stay same or get better or in next few years. Females aged 18-44 are also most likely to say they don’t know who will run public services most efficiently, and where they do express a view, are twice as likely to say the Tories. Women overall are less confident than men about Labour running services more efficiently.
With women still often managing the household budget, bearing the brunt of the family’s financial stress in the recession, talk of expenditure without clarity on what is being delivered is no longer a winning argument.
Secondly Labour has failed to maintain a relationship with the public whereby they believe Labour does not just pay for care, but actually cares. Only one in five say Labour is the party that cares most about the quality of public services, with men more likely to say this than women.
The image of an unloved public emerges, turning its back on a state and a party that it no longer believes cares for them. The public thinks that Labour has lost its heart.
But there are chinks of light to be found in the data. The Tories are clearly still vulnerable. A third expect public services to get worse under a Tory Government, with only 22 per cent saying they would get better.
What does become apparent is that the battle for public services is going to have to be fought on different grounds. The real danger now is that public will see Tories as delivering the same but for less, and that Labour will lose control over public services for a generation.
Seema Malhotra is Director of the Fabian Women’s Network and a management consultant. The full article and polling will be published in the next Fabian Review, out next week.