Tony Blair says he is leaving before the summer is out, and the race for the Labour party leadership, and the assessment of the likely contenders in the next general election is already generating column inches. There’s every expectation of a bit of (all in good fun) back stabbing in the race for the Labour party leadership, but nobody seriously expects Gordon Brown to lose. What is much more fun is considering how he will stand up to the Tories now that their new leader, David Cameron, is infusing the Tories with a fresh faced kind of posh boy sexiness (he took cocaine! he wears converse trainers! he listens to the Killers!). What is even more fun is considering how the female swing voters will choose between them.
It doesn’t surprise anyone that David Cameron is exciting more interest at this stage than the normally, intensely serious, and generally dour Mr Brown. None of the previous leaders of the Tories – Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague – has excited this much hope of finally facing down New Labour. What is annoying, however, is the way the public, and specifically, women, are viewed as reacting to the new Tory leader. Recent polls show that David Cameron owes his lead in the polls mostly to women’s votes. But is this because we women like his policies? Because they are sick of the present administration’s conduct in Iraq? Because they would like a change after ten years of New Labour? Hell, no, it’s because we all have the hots for him!
The press in the Tory camp base their campaign on the premise that the female vote is always susceptible to a strong chin, and a full head of hair (read Bill Clinton). There are constant references to Mr Cameron’s looks, charm, and sexiness. We are told how he cooks, he cleans, and that even some of his best friends are women. All in all we are persuaded that David Cameron is new age, young, and passably handsome ergo we must fancy him. As long as he gives us a cheeky grin, and a bit of laddish humour, we’ll be gagging to stuff our votes into his ballot box. Enough of a twinkle in his politician’s eye, and a photo of him on the school run, and he can have us over a soapbox anyday.
It’s a bit worrying that female voting attitudes are still viewed as this simplistic. If it isn’t the “he’s so handsome” gag, it’s the old “he changes nappies!” routine. David Cameron is supposed to be winning hearts with his caring dad demeanour, and his tie less suit and white shirt combos. He woos us with his talk of the “family”, “work/life balance”, and “saving the planet for our kids”. We see photos of his youthful figure riding a bike to work, while in reality, his Lexus trails behind him carrying his shoes, papers, and a statelier change of clothes. He affixes solar panels to his roof, and talks of sharing childcare responsibilities. And with every pronouncement he affects a posh, but loveable Hugh Grant inspired charm calculated to win over the ladies. Does everyone really think we are that easily swayed?
Granted, men aren’t so likely to be patronised on this front due to the disproportionate number of successful female politicians on the scene. And perhaps the fact that – in the main – older women aren’t considered half as desirable as shiny young political interns. Nobody would have wanted to jump into bed with Maggie Thatcher unless they had fantasies of the whip and leather variety, and most men would have had to close their eyes and think of Mother India before Indira Gandhi would have got a look in. But although every Frenchman worth his salt maybe panting over pictures of Segolene Royal in that blue swimsuit, you are unlikely to hear of the male vote swinging Royal’s way because she is sexy. You’re much more likely to hear that she puts off less capable, more wrinkled, female voters due to sheer female jealousy. As a sex, we’re still considered capricious voters – but the spin doctors approach us on the basis that our emotions are predictable, and our interests defined by childcare, family life, and, at a push, the climate. All grassroots, smaller scale, and domestic (with a small “d”) interests.
I won’t pretend that politicians can’t be sexy. I’ll expose my deviant taste in men by admitting that I think Gordon Brown oddly sexy, with that dishevelled lock of hair hanging over his face. And I even quite like the way he quotes treasury statistics with a sort of smug post-coital smile. But, unlike Cameron, his behaviour is not premeditated to set female hearts aflutter, in fact it is hard to see anything approaching (at least talented) spin in his normally serious demeanour. If anything, women voters have labelled Gordon Brown as “trustworthy” – high praise from members of a normally distrustful electorate, and at least recognition of a proven track record.
But despite the fact that David Cameron’s policies are so far variable, and given his lack of experience, largely untested, the statistics appear to show that Cameron’s play for the female vote may be working. An unproven Tony Blair came into power in 1997 on a tide of women’s votes. That tide seems to be changing. A Guardian/ICM poll last summer reflected women’s discontent with Labour, and swing towards the Conservatives. The Tories were 1% behind men, but scored an 8% lead among women. In a November, a Times/Populus poll showed that while men would vote for Labour and the Conservatives in equal numbers, women gave Cameron 37% of their vote to 31% for Labour.
Viewed through the prism of gender politics, it is fairly clear that Labour comes out miles ahead. It has 95 women MPs, to the Tory’s 17. It has a female foreign secretary, and several female ministers. It has made unprecedented strides in anti discrimination laws, contributed record levels of spending on education, and health, provided all children of nursery school age with guaranteed and quality childcare, and raised the minimum wage – mainly affecting a badly paid part-time female workforce. There is little, apart from the spectre of Margaret Thatcher, the Tories can point to in terms of increasing women’s participation in the political process, or at least easing the burdens of a modern working woman’s life.
If anything surely this would force commentators to a different conclusion on the figures, rather than the effete observation that women must be attracted to Mr Cameron’s kindness to children and puppy dogs. Perhaps that women are not only concerned with “women’s issues”. That perhaps their concerns are much wider, and not just rooted in domestic homebound concerns. Also that, for example, women may have a greater aversion to war, a greater propensity to take risks, or the intelligence not to stick to lifelong party commitments, but to change with the times. Or maybe it’s just because they think David Cameron is a cutie. Go figure.