Parties often seek to appeal to women voters through policy pledges. However, we know little about how these policies influence women’s voting behaviour. My research explored this in the context of the 2015 general election. I held focus groups in two constituencies (Manchester Central and Altrincham and Sale West) up to 18 months after the 2015 election, with 61 participants overall. I split focus groups according to age category (under 35s, 35-64, and 65+). Here, I focus on two policy agendas that were prominent within the focus group discussions: childcare and austerity. For both policy agendas, I found that trust in parties was lacking.
As it stands, the UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. The issue of childcare was a “battleground” at the 2015 election, where Labour’s pledge to raise subsidised childcare to 25 hours per week for working parents was trumped by a last-minute pledge of 30 hours from the Conservative Party. Within the focus groups, the Conservatives’ 30-hour pledge was met with scepticism from some women, due to confined eligibility to parents working at least 16 hours per week on National Minimum Wage. Some also raised concerns that the policy was not properly costed:
“I always take everything that the Conservatives say with a pinch of salt. So, the 30 free [childcare] hours, I think, well, how? Like no, it’s not as simple as that.”
“The 30 free hours seems like a good idea but even then I think they’ve still put things in place where there are still loopholes…you still have to be earning over a certain amount in order for it to benefit you in any way.”
“under the 30 free hours [the nurseries] only get a very small amount don’t they and obviously they’ve got to make a profit and that’s why they start charging for meals and all the other things…so it’s not really free hours, is it? Because you’ve always got the extras.”
Austerity and living costs
The 2015 Election was held against a backdrop of five years of austerity measures. These measures hit women financially twice as hard as men, due in part to women’s greater reliance on the state for income, services, and employment. Younger women were particularly averse to spending cuts, and two women commented on the challenges of rising living costs:
“Even now, food in supermarkets has got too dear, like meat and fish and things. I’ve become more aware of it. I used to do my weekly shop in Tesco but I changed to Aldi … I can’t afford a big weekly shop [in Tesco] anymore, not for the four of us.”
“For me, it’s how to cope with the cost of bills when they keep going up, especially electricity I’ve noticed… Normally I can budget carefully on top of food and rent each month, but I wouldn’t say it’s easy… all it takes is one utility bill that’s much higher than usual and you feel it financially, sometimes for a while after, actually.”
Research has shown that at the 2015 and 2017 elections, younger women’s financial pessimism and concerns over service provision were associated with their higher relative Labour support and reduced Conservative support. The focus group discussions illustrated that, comparatively, Labour’s economic policies on greater social spending were met with scepticism among older women:
“You’ve got to think ‘it all sounds wonderful’ and then analyse it down…you can’t pay for it.”
“Well [The Labour Party] cleaned the coppers out last time, didn’t they?”
So, what can parties learn from this? Firstly, taking the example of subsidised childcare hours, parties should ensure that there is transparency regarding the costs and eligibility of their policy proposals. Secondly, parties should be fully cognisant that women are not a monolithic block. We often hear about ‘the women’s vote’ but, as Rosie Campbell highlights, it is more accurate to talk about ‘women voters’ given the average voter is a woman. Women’s trust in parties’ pledges manifested differently across life-stage, but we might also expect this to vary by other factors, such as ethnicity or class. Policy proposals should therefore speak to women voters in all their diversity. For Labour, clear challenges lie ahead in winning the votes of older women without alienating younger women, particularly along economic lines. For the Conservatives, the reverse applies.
Gaining the trust of women voters is important. And there are, after all, real electoral incentives. Women comprise 54% of the British electorate due in part to demographic differences. On average, women tend to live longer than men: among those aged 85 and over, 65% are women. Men also comprise 95% of the prison population, meaning that many of them are ineligible to vote. In short, parties cannot afford to ignore women’s votes.
Dr Anna Sanders is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of York. Her research focuses on gender, elections and public policy.