Labour is seeking to exploit the Conservative party’s failure to connect with millions of low-skilled female voters by positioning itself as the champion of women struggling to cope with rising childcare costs and changes to the benefit system.
Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, told conference delegates that Iain Duncan Smith’s determination to overhaul the welfare system was making it hard for many women to meet childcare costs.
“This government must call off its unthinking attack,” said Mr Byrne. “There’s nothing universal about universal credit: it is a smokescreen for cutting childcare and it could lock parents into poverty.” His comments are part of a broader push by Labour to appeal to the ‘squeezed middle’ by highlighting the plight of working women on modest incomes. “The Tories are really losing out to this group and we have an open goal there,” said one member of the shadow cabinet this week.
Resolution Foundation, the independent research group, says women are being hit by changes to tax credit which reduce the amount low and middle income families receive to help with the cost of childcare. Meanwhile, single mothers earning just over £40,000 are set to lose child benefit. Cutting back public sector jobs also hurts women disproportionately since a higher proportion work in these jobs.
Polling evidence suggests that low-skilled female workers – the C2 socioeconomic group – are deserting the Conservatives in their droves. Such is the concern about the party’s relationship with women that Downing Street has commissioned research on the subject in an attempt to come up with more female-friendly policies.
Recent research by Ipsos Mori on behalf of Resolution Foundation, found that C2 women are moving back to Labour, which enjoys 42 per cent support among the group – an increase of 17 percentage points from last year’s general election. The Tories dropped 7 percentage points to 34 per cent.
“The electoral battle ground will be over the C2 women,” said one female Tory MP. “We took the last election on winning seats like Cannock Chase, Thurrock, Kingswood on the outer edge of suburbia. These are the sorts of seats in which we got the biggest swings and these are the people we need to be aware of when we go into the next election.”
Andrew Cooper, Mr Cameron’s head of strategy, has been working on ideas to try to redress this balance and bring disillusioned women back to the Tory fold. Ideas include cutting school summer holidays to help working parents, front-loading child benefit payments to give parents more support when their children are younger and trying to get more women to stand for elected police commissioner and mayoral posts.
Concern about how the party is coming across to women has also been taken up by a group of mainly women Tory MPs – led by Claire Perry, Eleanor Laing, Amber Rudd and Andrea Leadsom – who have been liaising with Downing Street.
“We need a more joined up response between our policies and our communications of them,” said one Tory MP. “Whenever a policy is coming out we need to look at it with the eyes of a female voter.”
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