The "gender gap" - the consistent tendency in British general elections for women to be more supportive of the Conservatives than men, and less supportive of Labour - almost disappeared in this year's general election.
|160||Vote share 2001||160||Change since 1997||160|
Historically, from the very earliest British elections when women were allowed to vote, Labour has been at a disadvantage. The '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 1997 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. In 2001 the gap closed further: Labour's share was the same, 42%, among women as among men, though the Tories did one point better among women (33% as against 32%) and the Lib Dems correspondingly one point worse.
|'Gender Gap': Con % lead over Lab among women minus Con lead over Lab among men|
Source: MORI election aggregates
This will presumably be of comfort to those campaigners in the Labour Party who have argued that the re-opening of the gender gap was a threat, that the party had to pay more specific attention to women's concerns, and that women's votes were "bleeding away" from Labour during the last Parliament.
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. Age is - and has been for as long as we have had MORI data to analyse it - a very significant complicating factor.
Younger women (18-24 year olds) are in fact much more likely than men of the same age to support Labour, a pattern which MORI has found at each of the last four general elections, though it was not true in 1983. In the three older age bands, women are more Tory, but much less dramatically so than was once the case. The difference is so sharp that, but for the derisory turnout of 18-24 year olds of both sexes in 2001, the young pro-Labour gap would have cancelled out the older pro-Tory difference, and the overall gender gap would have vanished altogether. Furthermore, although the overall gender gap narrowed in 2001, the age table shows this was almost entirely a change among the 35-54 year olds, while the behaviour of other age groups remained steady.
Gender gap by age
Source: MORI aggregate surveys
Furthermore, more detailed analysis of the data than we have previously attempted shows that there is an interaction between age and class. Among both 18-24 year olds and those aged 55 and over, the gender gap operates in the same direction for middle class (ABC1) and working class (C2DE) women, but much more dramatically in the latter case. No doubt this partly reflects that the life experiences and perhaps also economic interests of women are much more different from those of their men in working class than in middle class homes, though this is only speculation.
|160||Con||Lab||LD||Oth||Con lead||Gender gap|
|ABC1 M 18-24||30||35||29||6||-5||-5|
|ABC1 W 18-24||27||37||28||8||-10||160|
|ABC1 M 25-34||24||49||24||3||-25||+9|
|ABC1 W 25-34||27||43||23||7||-16||160|
|ABC1 M 35-54||32||38||23||7||-6||+5|
|ABC1 W 35-54||35||36||24||5||-1||160|
|ABC1 M 55+||49||27||19||5||+22||+4|
|ABC1 W 55+||50||24||21||5||+26||160|
|C2DE M 18-24||28||42||21||9||-14||-29|
|C2DE W 18-24||17||60||13||10||-43||160|
|C2DE M 25-34||24||57||12||7||-33||-1|
|C2DE W 25-34||23||57||15||5||-34||160|
|C2DE M 35-54||25||50||14||11||-25||-5|
|C2DE W 35-54||24||54||15||7||-30||160|
|C2DE M 55+||26||54||13||7||-28||+10|
|C2DE W 55+||31||49||15||5||-18||160|
Source: MORI election aggregate 2001 Base: 18,657 adults aged 18+, interviewed 8 May-6 Jun 2001
Among those aged 25-54, ABC1 women are more Tory than ABC1 men, but for C2DEs the difference is reversed.
It is only fortuitous that with all these various dynamics applying, the total result is to cancel out and leave virtually no gender gap overall. If we look at what has changed since 1997, again it is the middle age groups that are most intriguing. Among both 18-24 year olds, and the 55-and-overs, the swing among men and women was similar, with changes in vote shares for both the main parties differing by no more than a single percentage point. But for 25-34 year olds, although there was a similar loss of support for the Tories among men and women, while the men switched mostly to Labour the women preferred the Liberal Democrats. For 35-54 year olds, there was little change between 1997 and 2001 among women, but the men swung from Labour to both the other main parties.
The general pattern gives little justification for the soul-searching over the gender gap which has been a feature of New Labour thinking over the last couple of years. Of course it is true that women are likely to have a different political agenda to men. But there is no single agenda of "women's issues" which appeals to all of them, and not to men - differences in their age and circumstances can make their electoral needs and desires just as different from each other's as from those of their male counterparts. There is no magic formula to win the female vote.