Claire Annesley, Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex and Francesca Gains, Professor of Public Policy and Head of Politics at The University of Manchester examine the main political parties’ manifestos to identify if gender is still on the agenda or has it be side-lined due to an election being fought in a political context dominated by Brexit and fiscal discipline.
- Women are more likely than men to be floating voters and decide who to vote for towards the end of the campaign. They express greater political support for public services and are more strongly opposed to public sector cuts than men.
- Labour dedicates two-pages of its manifesto to women including a pledge to conduct a gender impact assessment of all policy and legislation.
- All parties promise action on the gender pay gap and pledge support for victims and survivors of violence against women and girls.
- An awareness of gendered differences in women’s preferences, needs and demands are firmly embedded in all the political parties’ manifestos.
- Moving manifesto pledges on gender equality onto government agendas will require strong representation of women in parliament and critical feminist actors in government.
The impact of gender
Gender matters a lot at election time. Women, as voters, can tip the balance of election outcomes. They are more likely than men to be floating voters, making their political choices later in the campaign. Young women’s preference for social spending and is important for explaining New Labour’s past electoral successes. Older women are more likely to vote Conservative. Political parties have got the message, and are now very competitive and targeted with their promises on ‘women’s issues’ and political representation. We saw this in the party manifestos at GE2015. What about GE2017?
At the same time, gender can easily slip off the agenda. In a political context dominated by Brexit and fiscal discipline we are curious to see if parties’ direct appeal to women voters has been maintained. Also, does the presence of four female party leaders – including a female Prime Minister – make a difference? What about the presence of a dedicated Women’s Equality Party running candidates in ten seats and with manifesto focused on policies to achieve equality?
We examine the manifestos of the main UK wide parties to see if this electoral focus on winning women’s votes is evident in the parties’ electoral offer. We include the UKIP manifesto but note that unlike the other main parties, this was published after the Manchester Arena bomb and reflects UKIP’s determination to orientate their message into the political agenda following that tragedy.
We look at three types of policies that in different ways parties can use to attract women’s votes:
- Policies that women prioritise politically.
- Policy issues that uniquely affect women .
- Policies to reduce inequality between men and women
- Policies that Women Prioritise Politically
Women – including Conservative women – express greater political support for public services and they are more strongly opposed to public sector cuts than are men.
All parties pledge increased resources for schools. Key differences lie in the approach to selective schooling:
- The Conservatives want to lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools.
- UKIP promise a grammar school in every town.
- Both Labour and the Lib Dems oppose selective schools.
Labour and the Greens education plans are most transformative: Labour is proposing a National Education Service with free education as a right from childhood through to adulthood, including free university tuition; and the Greens propose formal education starting at age 7 and free university education. UKIP too promise to scrap tuition fees for some university courses and link fees to employability.
All parties commit to increased spending for the NHS:
- £8bn over next 5 years from the Conservatives.
- £30bn in next parliament from Labour.
- £6bn from the Lib Dems.
- UKIP promise £11 billion a year for the NHS and social care.
All parties, too, place strong emphasis on boosting resources to improve provision for mental health. The Lib Dems propose a longer term objective to fully integrate the NHS and social care.
Women voters are more likely to be carers and, because they live longer than men, the recipients of social care.
- Labour has pledged to increase social care budgets by £8bn over next parliament and ‘lay the foundations of a National Care Service’. Labour would also increase carers’ allowance for full time carers to align with Job Seekers’ Allowance.
- The Lib Dems will raise the amount carers can earn before losing carers allowance from £110 to £150.
- The Conservative manifesto sets out plans to help carers.
- UKIP also pledges to protect disability and carer’s benefits.
Social care funding – key and possibly critical in how the Conservatives maintain their support from older women – the Conservative manifesto also sets out that elderly people in receipt of social care would be required to pay the full amount for their care until they reach their last £100,000. Unusually though following Dementia Tax controversy, Theresa May subsequently clarified that if re-elected there would be a Green Paper to consult on an upper cap for the cost of social care.
The Lib Dems would introduce an upper cap on the cost of social care, and Labour propose ‘an additional £3 billion of public funds every year, enough to place a maximum limit on lifetime personal contributions to care costs’.
- Policy Issues that Uniquely Affect Women
Political parties speak directly to women voters by making pledges that uniquely or predominantly affect them. Elsewhere we refer to these as policies that address women’s status as women. All parties offer these. Indeed Labour dedicates a two-page section to women, including a pledge to conduct a gender impact assessment of all policy and legislation. Directly addressing attitudes towards women, UKIP proposes to introduce a “social attitudes” test as part of a points-based immigration system which would stop people who believe women or gay people are “second-class citizens” from entering the country. Most controversially UKIP also propose to ban the wearing of the burka in public places.
Violence Against Women
All parties pledge support for victims and survivors of violence against women and girls (VAWG) and / or domestic violence through resources or legal provision.
- Labour pledges to introduce ‘a new commissioner to enforce minimum standards in tackling domestic and sexual violence’ – including FGM – and would also establish a National Refuge Fund and ‘ensure stable central funding for rape crisis centres’.
- The Lib Dems’ also pledge government funding for a national rape crisis helpline with increased opening hours.
- The Greens propose to implement a UK-wide strategy to tackle gender based violence, including domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse, FGM and trafficking.
- UKIP propose to introduce a screening programme with annual non-invasive check-up for girls at risk of FGM and make failure to report FGM a criminal offence.
- The Conservatives approach would be to introduce a new landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill – ‘to consolidate all civil and criminal prevention and protection orders and provide for a new aggravated offence if behaviour is directed at a child’ – create a domestic violence and abuse commissioner in law, and enshrine a definition of domestic violence and abuse in law.
Women and Criminal Justice
Both Labour and the Conservatives set out plans to protect victims of domestic or sexual violence in court. The Lib Dems promise a review of cases of sexual and domestic violence and of the effects of limits to legal aid on victims of domestic violence. Both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives propose support for women offenders: the Lib Dems by setting up a Women’s Justice Board with a remit to meet the needs of women offenders and the Conservatives with a ‘dedicated provision for women offenders’.
Women and Girls’ Education
The Conservatives promote women and girls’ education as a route to development internationally and as a mechanism for integrating divided communities in the UK. The Lib Dems commit to challenging ‘gender stereotyping and early sexualisation’ in schools to ‘promote positive body image and break down outdated perceptions of gender appropriateness of particular academic subjects’. They also propose to tackle bullying in schools, including bullying on the basis of gender, sexuality, gender identity or gender expression.
Support for Pregnant Women
Parties pledge support for pregnant women, including supporting women who have experienced miscarriage or stillbirth.
- The Lib Dems offer to ‘transform mental health support for pregnant women, new mothers and those who have experienced miscarriage or stillbirth, and help them get early care when needed’.
- The Conservatives will offer families who lose a baby ‘the bereavement support they need, including a new entitlement to child bereavement leave’.
- Labour proposes mandatory workplace risk assessment for pregnant women and to ‘review support for women who have miscarriages’. Labour would also reverse employment tribunal fees so women can tackle pregnancy discrimination.
All parties make pledges on women’s representation, albeit in different venues:
- For Labour it’s a commitment to gender parity in their cabinet.
- For the Conservatives it’s a pledge to work towards parity in the number of public appointments, to increase in the number of women on company boards of companies and to ‘make sure civil service recruitment is as diverse as possible.
- For the Lib Dems it’s a push for ‘at least 40% of board members being women in FTSE 350 companies’.
- For the Greens a requirement that a minimum 40% of all members of public company and public sector boards be women and a 50/50 parliament.
- Policies to reduce inequality between men and women
Some political parties propose redistributive policies that seek to reduce inequalities between men and women. We refer to these as policies that address women’s class status, and elsewhere we have found that these are hard to get on the political agenda when the economy is not growing.
The gender pay gap
For the GE2017 all parties pledge action on the gender pay gap: the Conservatives and Lib Dems would require companies with more than 250 employees to publish more data on the pay gap between men and women. Slightly less concrete Labour pledges to ‘tackle the gender pay gap’ and the Greens pledge to ‘end the gender pay gap’. Beyond these pledges on pay, the offer with regards gender equality policy is, as we’d expect from previous research, strongest from the Labour Party.
Policies for Parents
Labour’s manifesto sets out plans to extend maternity pay to 12 months and to offer better paternity leave. The Conservatives propose to take steps to improve take-up of shared parental leave and help companies provide more flexible work environments that help mothers and fathers to share parenting. On childcare, Labour proposes direct government subsidy for childcare to replace subsidies to parents. It will also extend 30 hours of free childcare to all two year olds and halt the closures of Sure Start centres. The Lib Dems propose to fund more extensive childcare ‘to reach an ambitious goal of one million more women in work by 2025’ and the Greens propose ‘free universal early education and childcare for all children’
Pensions and Social Security
- The Conservatives would means test the universal winter fuel allowance (albeit not in Scotland) and change the triple lock guarantee on the value of the state pension to a double lock.
- Labour, the Lib Dems and UKIP will maintain the triple lock guarantee and retain the winter fuel allowance as a universal benefit.
Labour will offer ‘some kind of compensation’ to women born in the 1950s who lost out when state pension ages were increased. Both Labour and the Lib Dems propose reform of family benefits, with Labour ending six-week delays in payment, the Lib Dems abandoning the two-child policy on family benefits and both parties committing to abolish the Conservatives’ ‘rape clause’ where a woman has to prove a third child is born as a result of rape in order to access benefits.
Conclusion: Gender is still on the Agenda
At the time of writing the outcome of the election, despite the sizeable Conservative lead in the polls, is difficult to predict, but there is evidence from the polls that women voters are now veering towards Labour. Teresa’s May’s apparent wobble regarding the dementia tax was reflected in a narrowing of this lead. Whether the subsequent U-turn was enough to reassure older women voters and their families is still in the mix. And the seismic impact of the Manchester atrocity will dominate the campaign and the psephological consequences in ways which are impossible to gauge with over two weeks to go.
However our examination of manifestos shows in GE2017 gender is clearly still on the agenda. An awareness of gendered differences in women’s preferences, needs and demands are firmly embedded in all political parties’ offer to voters. Overall, Labour has the strongest commitment to women across the board: on policies women prioritise, policies for women, and gender equality policies. The Lib Dems have also significantly improved their offer compared with previous elections. The Conservatives are strong on ‘status’ policies for women, but commit few resources to reduce women’s poverty and economic inequalities.
As Patrick Diamond points out manifestos do matter not only for providing a platform for parties to coalesce around, but in setting an agenda for Government and in having quasi constitutional authority. Once the UK gets a new Government on June 9th these promises are not certain to get enacted however. Moving manifesto pledges on gender equality onto government agendas will require strong representation of women in parliament and critical feminist actors in government. And whilst a record number of women are standing in this election – 30% of the 3,300 candidates – how this translates into women MPs and ministers depends not only on the number of women candidates standing, but for which party and whether they are standing in winnable seats.