Leaked government documents this week exposed the coalition’s fear that they are losing the support of women voters. They’re right to be concerned. Gavin Kelly’s excellent analysis in the New Statesman shows that government policy is indeed alienating women voters, particularly working class women.
So far, so good. Acknowledging that government policies may not be going down well with women is a good starting point. Where the author of the leaked memo starts to go wrong though is when possible remedies are suggested.
Suggestions such as giving women “personal budgets” for maternity care to “force the pace on choice in maternity” are ill-conceived (no pun intended). With maternity units closing up and down the country and a chronic shortage of midwives, women’s choices in maternity care are dwindling. Personal budgets will do nothing to reverse this.
A personal budget is no use to a woman whose local maternity units have all closed and who has no option but to give birth at a hospital miles from home with too few midwives to ensure the level of care she needs. A personal budget will not afford any more choice to a woman who wants to give birth in a midwife led unit but, due to NHS cuts, only has access to a hospital with an understaffed maternity ward.
David Cameron made a pre-election pledge to recruit an extra 3,000 midwives. Implementing that pledge would do more for women’s “choice in maternity”, let alone maternal mortality rates, than a cash handout.
There is also a suggestion that a website for women to anonymously disclose pay would be a step forward for equal pay. Surely what we need is for more employers to disclose and monitor progress on equal pay, rather than individual employees having to work it out for themselves based on anonymous testimonies on a website?
What is really striking amongst the blue-sky suggestions – which range from the sensible to the half-baked – is the gulf between the government’s understanding of the issues that matter to women and the reality.
If the motions to the TUC’s women’s conference and TUC Congress are any indicator of what working women want, the coalition would do well to look at some alternative strategies for winning women’s votes. How about defending abortion rights, halting the savage cuts to public sector jobs, ringfencing Sure Start funding, increasing the childcare element of tax credits, committing more funding to ending violence against women and girls, safeguarding the NHS, strengthening, rather than weakening employment rights and equality legislation?
This is the kind of “blue sky thinking” that might win a few women’s votes.