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 Woman looking up at the newly erected statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, UK, She campaigned for women's right to vote during the early 20th Century and is seen as one of the most influential feminists of the past 100 years.

What Britain Thinks

What Women Want

Why Women Will Decide the Next Election
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Executive Summary

In advanced democracies across the world, the last forty years have seen women move left, shifting their support from conservative to progressive parties. One country, however, proved an exception. In almost every election from 1945 to 2015, Britain’s Conservative Party won more of its support from women than men. Their support contributed to the Conservative’s electoral dominance in the era. In the post-war period, they governed for 48 years to Labour’s 30. 

In an attempt to reverse this trend, Harriet Harman and colleagues boarded a now famous pink bus during the 2015 General Election, traversing the country to win women’s support.  Despite her best efforts, David Cameron’s party continued to collect the votes of more women than men, carrying him to a majority that few predicted. 

It wasn’t until the next election that the pattern began to change. In both 2017 and 2019, Labour won a significantly larger proportion of its votes from women, while the Conservatives won most of theirs from men. This trend continues to the present day. Labour Together’s polling shows that Labour’s lead over the Conservatives is 28 points among women compared to 22 points among men.

This turnaround has received surprisingly little attention. Instead, commentators have often looked to demography to help explain the recent convulsions in British politics. They have chronicled the gradual breakdown of the historic relationship between social class and voting behaviour. They have explored how voting habits have become polarised around age, with younger voters now overwhelmingly backing Labour and older voters overwhelmingly supporting the Conservatives. Many have also noted the shift in the politics of university graduates who used to lean Conservative, but now mostly vote Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green. The shift in the voting intention of women, however, has gone largely unnoticed. 

In April 2023, Labour Together published Red Shift, a report identifying six different voter segments, including two groups of voters that Labour must win. One of these segments was assigned the character of “Workington Man”: an economically left wing but socially conservative voter, who handed the ex-industrial “Red Wall” seats (like Workington, in Cumbria) to the Conservatives in the 2019 General Election. 

The second segment, new to the wider psephological debate, called “Stevenage Woman”. These voters are economically insecure and politically disengaged, whose views hew close to the median on both economic and cultural issues. They are the largest number of voters in the electorate, and are particularly likely to be found in Conservative-Labour marginal seats (like Stevenage, a classic bellwether seat that has chosen the winning party at each election for decades). They are also, as their name suggests, disproportionately women. Without Workington Man, Labour cannot recover the 30 Red Wall seats it lost in 2019. Without Stevenage Woman, there is no plausible path to Labour winning the rest of the 120 seats needed for an overall Labour majority government.

In setting out this claim, Red Shift drew attention to the importance of how women vote. This report now looks at how and why women have moved towards Labour, asks whether this trend is likely to continue, and examines how Labour can hold onto women’s votes. 

To answer this question, we carried out two waves of polling, looking at the differences between the attitudes and experiences of men and women, and how the genders prioritise different issues. We found three principal reasons why women are now disproportionately backing Labour: 

  1. Women are more likely to feel financially insecure. Women are nearly a third more likely than men to be very worried about the financial security of their household. This drives people towards Labour, as those who feel “very worried” about their finances are nearly six times more likely to vote Labour than Conservative. 

  2. Women care about Labour issues. Women are more likely to say that issues such as health and social care, where Labour has a particularly strong reputation, are important to them. Conversely, immigration - where Labour has historically lagged behind the Conservatives - is less likely to be considered an important issue by women.

  3. Young women are unusually progressive. Although women of all ages are more likely to support Labour than men of a similar age, this is particularly true of young women. The youngest cohort (aged 18 to 24) is particularly socially liberal and economically left-wing. Young men, however, are more right-wing than is often realised. Eighteen to 24 year old men are now twice as likely to vote Conservative than young women, and three times more likely to support Reform. 

This report contains an important caveat to those who might take women’s support of Labour as a given. With the exception of young women (whose support for Labour is offset by young men’s support for right-wing parties), women’s support for Labour does not appear to be a fundamental ideological alignment. 

Instead, women are supporting Labour on the grounds of economic insecurity and because the party is seen as being better at dealing with the issues they care about. This makes their support contingent on Labour continuing to put forward a more convincing offer than the Conservatives on these issues. No one can take women’s votes for granted. 

It is also worth noting that there is much that we do not know about how women will vote at the election that must be called by December 2024. On average, women are less politically engaged than men and, when polled, are more likely to say that they “don’t know” who they will vote for. 

This does not, however, translate into women being less likely to vote. Women do vote, but they make their minds up later than men. As a result, election campaigns matter. Most of the voters who are undecided when the starting gun is fired are women. 

On the surface, Labour making up ground with women voters is good news for the party. But there are caveats. Women’s support for Labour is not guaranteed. As recently as 2015, the Conservatives won most of their support from women. In 2019, the Conservatives won the support of women by a 5 point margin. 

Going into the next General Election, many women’s votes are still up for grabs. Any campaign that fails to speak to women, either Labour or Conservative, could lose millions of potential voters - more than enough to swing an election.

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