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Labour and the 'Gender Gap'

Date:3 March 2000
Category:Comment & Analysis
Specialism:Social Research
Keywords:Gender, Labour Party
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The Labour Party (or, to be precise, the Labour Representation Committee as it then was) was founded a hundred years ago this week. The driving force behind the LRC's foundation was the trade union movement, with the intention of getting working men into Parliament, and thereby better to represent working class voters.

A hundred years on, Keir Hardie and his fellow pioneers might find many characteristics of the party's voting support unfamiliar. An analysis for British Public Opinion newsletter of the aggregate of more than 44,000 interviews in MORI's Omnibus polls conducted during 1999 reveals Labour support that, far from its origins as a sectional pressure group, is now spread throughout British society. Labour supporters make up 42% of the adult population or a little over half of those who expressed a voting preference at all (53%).

Fewer than three in five, 57%, of their supporters come from working class households; not much more than a fifth (22%) are trade union members. Furthermore, what would perhaps be more startling to the party's founders, two-thirds of their supporters own their own houses and 37% of them own shares.

But the biggest difference, of course, since 1900 is that many of the party's voters, and more than a quarter of its MPs, are women. In the days when the party was founded, women could neither vote nor stand for Parliament. That was corrected by changes in the law in 1918 and 1928, and although other parties were quicker than Labour to elect their first female MPs, the first female Cabinet minister served in a Labour cabinet.

Yet from those very earliest elections when women were allowed to vote, Labour has been at a disadvantage- the party has always appealed less successfully to women than to men. This 'gender gap' has been a persistent theme in Labour's electoral history, though at some periods the discrepancy has been smaller than at others, and indeed fleetingly disappeared altogether at the 1987 election. For the past few years now the gap has been slight, and at the last general election Labour's share of the vote was only one percentage point lower (and the Tory share one point higher) among women than among men.

But the gender gap is still there. In our 1999 aggregate, the discrepancy is a little bigger than it was at the election: Labour has 51% of women's voting intention support and 54% of men's. The party itself has noticed this, and over the last few months there has been a flurry of speeches and papers discussing how Labour can avoid losing women's support, and whether "female-friendly" policies, or presentation, or simply more female Labour MPs and candidates, are the answer.

But of course it is not that simple. Not all groups of women are more Tory or less Labour supporting than otherwise similar groups of men. The detailed breakdown of current support (from the 1999 aggregate) shows significant differences in the pattern by age and by class.

Younger women are in fact more likely than men of the same age to support Labour, a pattern which MORI has found at each of the last three general elections. The difference is also much bigger among C1s and C2s (the 'swing' classes in voting terms) than among either ABs or DEs.

  Con Lab LD Oth Con lead
  % % % % ±%
Total 27 53 14 6 -26
ABC1 M 18-24 24 50 17 9 -26
ABC1 W 18-24 19 52 21 8 -33
ABC1 M 25-34 26 54 14 6 -28
ABC1 W 25-34 24 56 14 6 -32
ABC1 M 35-54 28 49 17 6 -21
ABC1 W 35-54 30 46 18 6 -16
ABC1 M 55+ 43 37 15 5 6
ABC1 W 55+ 49 29 18 4 20
C2DE M 18-24 12 68 10 10 -56
C2DE W 18-24 14 68 10 8 -54
C2DE M 25-34 18 64 10 8 -46
C2DE W 25-34 16 66 12 6 -50
C2DE M 35-54 18 64 11 7 -46
C2DE W 35-54 20 61 13 6 -41
C2DE M 55+ 24 58 12 6 -34
C2DE W 55+ 29 53 13 5 -24

Technical note: The 1999 Annual Aggregate Analysis is compiled for The Times from MORI's CAPI omnibus surveys throughout 1999. In total, 44,597 adults aged 18+ were interviewed face-to-face, in home. Data were weighted to match the profile of the population. The figures exclude those who said they would not vote (11%), were undecided (7%) or refused to name a party (1%).

Combining the two analyses is more revealing still. Labour does as well or better among women as men, whether middle-class or working class, below the age of 35. But among those aged over 55, especially the middle class, the gap is very substantial. These are the women to which Labour most needs to appeal if it hopes to be equally supported by men and women in all groups of the population.

On the other hand, if we look at what has changed since the election, it is the young women who are most significant. In 1997, Labour's share of the vote was eight points higher among women aged 18-24 than among men of the same age; now it is only one point higher. What is more, political apathy is much higher among this group, with 23% of these young women saying they would not vote at all, and another 15% undecided how they would vote.

Naturally, 18-24 year old women have a very different political agenda from middle-class women aged over 55. So which of these groups should Labour be targeting, if they hope to 'close the gender gap? Not an easy question to answer, but it may have a considerable effect on the way Labour presents itself as it moves into its second century.

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Dr Roger Mortimore
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