IT'S that special time again, the one women look forward to with such enthusiasm: the few days a year when politics suddenly falls over itself to notice we exist. Panicky memos on what female voters might want fly across Whitehall, journalists are exhaustively briefed on how the prime minister wants to woo wonen (why is our vote always wooed, Mills and Boon style, when men's is targeted?), and even Jeremy Paxman is made to host an all-female panel of political pundits in front of an all-female audience. And then, of course, everyone goes gratefully back to business as usual. Yawn.
But something thrillingly unexpected happened during last night's special 'Ladies Day' edition of Newsnight: a mini-insurrection erupted, led by the Tory MP Claire Perry (on the panel) and activist Charlotte Vere (in the audience), attacking the very idea that there is a 'woman's vote' or that women are defined by issues like childcare. (Fathers are interested in children too, someone shouted from the back). And I increasingly think they're right.
It sometimes feels as though I spent half my career in political journalism writing about the 'women's vote': pollsters and pressure groups never tire of analysing it, and some female ministers used it very effectively as a way of leveraging what they wanted out of Downing Street. But lately I've been increasingly uncomfortable about the term. How can you lump together grannies and students, hotshot female bankers and their minimum wage cleaners, in one supposedly cohesive group - as if the mythical Power of Ladyness somehow unites them all, despite obviously different priorities? Why is anyone shocked at YouGov's finding earlier this summer that nearly half of us can't identify which party is closest to women, rather than seeing it as healthy that women no longer vote - like a huddled, threatened minority - en bloc? Talking about the 'women's vote' too often carries the inference that women are a strange minority requiring their own special politics - preferably pink, and handbag-sized - while men remain the mainstream majority. Nobody talks about politicians losing the 'man's vote', although thousands of men have changed their minds about the coalition too.
Drill down into the data, as this recent blog by Resolution Foundation's Gavin Kelly points out, and the idea of one homogenous 'women's vote' makes even less sense.The Tories have lost support among women since the election, but it's among 'squeezed middle' women from the C2 socioeconomic group that they're really struggling: support among professional women has actually risen. So much for the sisterhood. As the pollster Anthony Wells points out, it isn't true either that women care mostly about 'soft' issues like health and education while men care about money and wars: both sexes are worried now about the economy, jobs, and living standards.
That said, there is one striking difference in the YouGov polling Wells was analysing: lack of confidence. Women are more likely than men to say they're 'very worried' about losing their jobs, losing their homes, or getting ill, suggesting they may react with greater alarm to the same levels of threat (women are indeed particularly vulnerable to job losses now these have reached the public sector, but they're presumably not more likely to get ill). Women are also much readier than men to tick 'don't know' - to admit that they're not sure whether spending cuts are good or bad, fair or unfair, too deep or not deep enough - while men tend to take a definitive view (although when even Nobel prizewinning economists disagree on tackling the crisis, most of us in all honesty probably don't know whether the government's economic gamble is the right one). Perhaps men are less willing to lose face by telling a pollster they don't know the answer, but it might also mean women feel greater uncertainty, fuelling their already greater anxiety. I wouldn't be surprised if the overriding mood Cameron wants to create today is one of reassurance.
And if that's so, he should forget about the mythical 'women's vote' and concentrate on some specific female voters with cause to feel threatened or let down by the coalition. Here are three ideas to get him started:
1. Wake up to older women. In 1997 it was all about the swing voting suburban mum, but Worcester Woman is 14 years older now and her children are nearly grown up: an ageing population means the biggest single electoral grouping is women aged 40 to 59. Harriet Harman dropped a big fat hint last week that Labour is going after them, talking about tackling the double whammy of ageism and sexism faced by older women. By contrast the coalition offers an unappealing cocktail of hiking retirement age to 66, deep uncertainty about the future of longterm care (women have a 50:50 chance of ending up caring for elderly parents or other relatives by the age of 59), and higher tuition fees (this group may have children approaching university age). And while stock market crashes particularly hurt the over-55s, whose pension funds don't really have time to recover before they retire, older women may feel more vulnerable because their savings tend to be smaller and probably need to last them longer. Cameron consciously surrounds himself with women who can offer him insights into what their peers want, but most are in their 30s and 40s: where are the older women, either in government or behind the scenes?
2. It's hard to be both the party of big business, and the party of female employees. The impression lingers that if asked to choose between a bright, ambitious young woman and an old dinosaur of a boss who won't promote her in case she has a baby one day, Tory sympathies would instinctively lie with the boss. This isn't exactly helped by threatening to price people out of taking discrimination cases to tribunal (which is effectively what the Chancellor was announcing earlier this week), or wild talk about abolishing maternity leave. Downing Street needs to pick a high-profile issue fast where it can be seen to be on the side of ordinary working women.
3. Watch for hidden gender traps. We're told, for example, that the prime minister will exhort the nation this afternoon to pay off our credit card and storecard debts: but since there are estimated to be three times as many single women struggling with store card debt as single men, and newspapers invariably run stories like this alongside images of women swinging shopping bags, if he's not careful young women are going to feel criticised and patronised. It wouldn't hurt to balance this with a promise to look again, say, at the relentless pushing of storecards (often with killer rates of interest) at point of sale in women's clothes shops.