This piece by Rosie Campbell on the relationship between gender and voting behaviour is taken from our recent report “The state of public opinion: 2023”. Read the full report here.
For most of the period since World War II, women have been more likely to support the Conservative Party than men. Women’s support for right-wing parties was explained by their greater religiosity, the association of conservative parties with establishment religions, and women’s lower level of exposure to social institutions of the left such as trade unions.
However, the 2017 election witnessed a dramatic reversal of this traditional pattern. A ‘modern’ gender gap appeared in the support for the two largest British national parties (see figure). For the first time, a greater proportion of women than men voted for Labour, with the reverse true for the Conservatives. The UK finally ceased to be an outlier in the global trend (apparent in the US since 1980) whereby, as more women entered paid work and higher education, they moved to the left politically. This reversal of the gender gap in the UK proved not to be a blip and was repeated in 2019.
Aggregate level data does, however, mask significant differences within age cohorts. Younger women are significantly more likely to support Labour and less likely to support the Conservatives than younger men, but this modern gender gap diminishes across the generations and disappears among older voters.
Analysis has suggested that the gender-generation gap apparent in 2017 can be accounted for by women’s greater concerns about household finances and the NHS compared to men, leading them to vote for the opposition. In 2019, differences between younger men and women’s attitudes towards Brexit was a critical factor.
The modern gender gap is still evident. Data from February 2023 shows the same gender pattern, with Labour ahead of Conservatives by 28% among women, compared to 22% among men.
Again, aggregate level data masks differences between subgroups, divided by age and other factors. Geography is one such factor. Data produced by Labour Together shows a specific type of women voter – labelled the ‘Stevenage woman’- who will be essential if Labour is to win a majority at the next election. Too often, media and politicians focus almost exclusively on the so called ‘Workington man’, or disaffected former Labour voters in post-industrial areas such as the Red Wall, who are necessary but insufficient when it comes to ensuring a Labour victory.
‘Stevenage Woman’ is a younger voter, struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, and living in suburban areas, which are often marginal Labour/Conservative constituencies. These voters are not strong partisans and were greater supporters of the Conservative Party in 2019, but now have shifted towards Labour.
The description of the ‘Stevenage Woman’ as a weak partisan is in keeping with findings from academic research on gender differences in political participation. Women tend, on average, to be slightly less interested in formal politics than men. As it is those people who are highly engaged with politics who tend to develop strong party loyalties, women are disproportionately represented among the group who have no strong party ties, and instead decide how to vote closer to the election.
More widely, women are also over-represented in lower income households and express greater concern about their financial security and the state of the NHS. At present, the Labour Party has an advantage among voters who hold these twin concerns, accounting for a significant portion of Labour’s advantage among women – particularly younger women voters.
So, what does this mean for the next election? At 51% of the adult population, and a slightly higher proportion of eligible voters (given women’s greater longevity and the fact that men constitute 95% of the prison population, mostly ineligible to vote), women’s votes are essential to secure an electoral majority.
Men and women’s voting patterns and issue priorities are more similar than they are different. However, given the size of the populations involved, even small differences in gender vote choice can have a huge impact at the ballot box. None of the parties can afford to ignore the modern gender gap which has emerged in recent elections.
Labour must be wary of taking women’s votes for granted, given their weak partisan ties and over-representation among swing voters. Meanwhile, the Conservatives must make efforts to improve their reputation on those issues women emphasise more than men, particularly the cost-of-living crisis and the state of the NHS.
By Rosie Campbell, Professor of Politics and Director of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, King’s College London.