It's rare for a sitting prime minister to go on television and make a well publicised apology; rarer still when the issue at hand is not one of policy, but of his general behaviour. Yet that's what David Cameron has now done. His apology to women (“I said a few things... that didn't come out right”) marks an urgent attempt to stem the flow of women voters away from the party. He is right to be worried. Women's votes have always been a key plank in Tory success, and when a key demographic like this leaves, it rarely comes back.
When British women first obtained the vote in 1918, they quickly disabused sitting politicians on the assumption that they would vote like their husbands. Yet although the suffragists at the heart of the movement were radicals, women's votes have always, in the majority, tended to the right of the political spectrum. To an extent this is explained by the fact women live longer and most people move to the right as they get older (furthermore, traditionally, older people have been more likely to defer to perceived natural authority). But as the Conservatives at the last election came to rely much more heavily on the support of the young, they retained a lot of that female support, with polls giving them a 45% female approval rating.
That figure has now dropped to 25%.
So what? you might ask. Conservative support has clearly not fallen by that much overall, so they must have made gains elsewhere. But what matters – and their election managers will know this – is not just support, but the solidity of that support. The loss of this set of votes which could previously be taken for granted will hit the Conservative party the way Labour has been hit by its loss of support in urban Scotland. There is no way any political party can afford to campaign for every vote and policies can't be tailored to suit everyone, so these underlying blocks of support are essential to success. They allow campaign managers to relax in some areas and concentrate their tactics more efficiently in others. No party is equipped to handle a truly unpredictable electorate.
Will Cameron's apology make a difference? The early signs say otherwise – it may even have been a mistake. By acknowledging certain of his errors, Cameron has highlighted the problem to those who hadn't worried about it before whilst at the same time suggesting to his critics that he fails to understand the real issue. If he could have avoided the casually sexist remarks in parliament then he might have got away without having to talk too much about policy, but at this stage he will have to give dissatisfied women voters something more substantial. The suggestion that it is really all just about explaining better isn't going to wash. Women up and down the country are used to hearing carefully prepared explanations from errant men in their lives.
So we come to the age old question, what do women want? Whilst it might be tempting to shout furiously that women are people and want the same things as any other people, the stats present a more complicated picture. Women are more likely to have family responsibilities; to be carers; to be unemployed (female unemployment is now at its highest for nearly twenty five years) or to be low-waged. This makes them more likely to be impacted directly by the cuts. They also do the bulk of grocery shopping, so are more likely to notice and worry about rising food prices. They constitute the majority of elderly and disabled people, making them more vulnerable to the cold and more likely to be concerned by increasing fuel costs. And those lower levels of full employment mean women are more likely to be involved in community activities, primarily with other women – so their worries are likely to be shared.
For these reasons and more, pleasing women is likely require at least a rebalancing, if not a wholesale rethink, of the government's attempts to reduce the deficit. But there's more. Women are smart enough to know when they are being patronised and pandered to, so bringing them on side will require demonstrating that they have a voice in government. It is possibly in acknowledgement of this that we have seen a bit more of the Conservatives' female ministers lately. Whilst it is unlikely that Theresa May's pronouncements on the Human Rights Act will result in any real change, she is a forceful politician and her renewed prominence may do something to counter the image of the government front benches as a millionaire boys' club. Sayeeda Warsi, meanwhile, has featured prominently in conference coverage. It may be unfortunate that she embodies some of the worst stereotypes of femininity, but at least in this context she can demonstrate her emotional intelligence (more valuable that colleagues may realise) without getting into the sort of muddle over logic that she did when it came to AV.
The party's real difficulty will be in convincing women voters that this is more than just window dressing. This time around it doesn't have the advantage of a female leader, and it is difficult for it to take a strong lead on family issues when the Tea Party across the water is making this area toxic for the right. What it needs is to identify key issues affecting women's lives and focus funding there, rather than frittering it away on speed limit changes and extra bin collections that may please stalwart supporters but won't win over wavering ones. It needs to start investing now, before the rot gets too severe, or it may find its foundations crumbling.