Lisa Townsend is the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
I’m not a fan of ‘women’s issues’. For a start, we make up 51 per cent of the electorate, so if we’re going to discuss sex-based minority policies then we should really be starting with men. Current tactics however, are not working for women.
We know that, historically, women were more likely to vote Conservative. The oft-quoted Fawcett Society claim that without women’s suffrage, the UK would have seen an almost continuous Labour government since the Second World War, should serve as a reminder to us all how important women are in determining who gets to hold the keys to 10 Downing Street.
But right now, the party has a woman problem – a young woman problem, to be more specific. It’s been steadily growing since 2015 and according to recent polling, it’s getting worse. So bad in fact, that without urgent action to regain the trust and confidence of women we will be handing victory to Labour at the next general election. Keir Starmer will be hoping for a 1997-style swing in female voters and the way things are going, he may well get his wish.
Despite our electoral success, in 2015 and 2017, women under 35 were more likely to vote Labour. This was even more stark in 2019 when 47 per cent of men voted Conservative compared to only 42 per cent of women. Older women remain more likely than their male peers to vote Conservative, but we all know what happens if we rely on an ageing cohort for our electoral success.
In 2017, despite a female prime minister and a supposed end to the macho culture at No 10, it was women who found themselves persuaded by Jeremy Corbyn’s promises for a fairer society. More pay, better housing and safer communities. None of these are ‘women’s issues’ but Labour understood that women hold huge electoral power in their pencil-wielding hands, and they made a point of speaking directly to women, in a way that we did not.
The Conservative Party can no longer rely on women to get us over the line, and we shouldn’t be surprised. Women are more likely to be floating voters, less loyal to a party and an ideology, and more influenced by trust – or the lack of – in a leader. It may be the one example where past habits are no longer the predictor of future behaviour. We must try harder to win that trust back, and this will involve going back to basics – at least in terms of our understanding of women.
I’m not a fan of the ‘women and equalities’ brief, but I am pleased it is headed by someone who knows what a woman is. Liz Truss is a rare and brave Cabinet member for questioning Stonewall, publicly and forcefully, paving the way for politicians like me to speak out against a damaging form of trans ideology that places the feelings of men above the safety of women and children.
I don’t believe this is an exclusively women’s issue (it affects us all when gender and sex are conflated), but I do believe that if we are to win and retain women as voters we have to be clear that we know what a woman is. Today, many women who have previously voted Labour, Lib Dem or Green tell me they feel politically homeless. And the one belief those parties have in common: that anyone who calls themselves a woman must be treated as such – no questions asked. Where does that leave those of us who believe that being a woman is more than a ‘feeling’?
It is not too late to win back those who thought Corbyn was the answer or who believe Starmer would be better than Boris Johnson. We don’t need a pink bus or a manifesto for women, we just need to be clear that this Conservative government understands their concerns and their fears.
It was hugely encouraging to see last week’s additions to the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, including longer sentences for sexual offenders, more time to report domestic abuse and a new ‘breastfeeding voyeurism’ offence. I make the assumption here that there are no men who wouldn’t want to see their mother, wife or daughter given these extra protections, or wouldn’t actively push for these measures. Being the party of law and order appeals to men and women equally.
It was a Conservative government that gave women the vote on the same terms as men, the Conservative Party which has given the UK the only female prime ministers the country has known and now we is the only party which seems to know what a woman actually is. We must not miss the chance to show women all over the UK that their vote and their safety is and always will be safe with us.