Boris’s missing women

Conservatives will undoubtedly be celebrating their victory. Yet, going forward, there is a group of voters they must make sure they do not forget – women, and particularly young women. Of course, we should always be cautious of rhetoric of the ‘women’s vote’, not least because women are not a homogenous group. However, there are some differences in Johnson’s relationship with the male versus the female voter. Throughout the election campaign, polling showed that Johnson was less popular with women. In one YouGov poll there was a 10 percentage-point gap with 41% of men saying Boris Johnson was a good leader compared to 31% of women. There are several possible explanations.

Firstly, it could be further evidence of the beginning of a modern gender gap in the British electorate. Whereas women were historically more likely to support conservative parties, since the 1980s we have seen a reversal of this trend in many counties with the modern gender gap seeing women more supportive of left-wing parties than men. This trend begun to appear in the UK during the 2015 and 2017 elections. Anna Sanders and Rosalind Shorricks have shown how this gap was driven by younger women (under 35) who are more anti-austerity and thus less supportive of the Conservatives. YouGov polling suggest young women in particular dislike Johnson with 17% of women under 40 saying Johnson was a good leader compared to 30% of young men and 40% of women over 40.

These policy preferences could explain women’s lesser enthusiasm for Johnson. Compared to men, women are less supportive of spending cuts to public services, even among supporters of right-wing parties. Women also give priority to the NHS and healthcare. Johnson’s consistent message of ‘getting Brexit done’ at any cost may also have affected his favourability amongst women. Women are less likely to be hard Eurosceptic than men and are more concerned about the consequences of a ‘No Deal’ exit.

Further to this, the masculine imagery of Boris Johnson and his attitude to women should be considered. Since taking over the leadership there have been accusations of sexist language from Johnson. He called David Cameron ‘a girly swot’ and was reprimanded for sexist language in the House by Speaker John Bercow. Johnson’s bolshie masculine style in the election campaign included smashing through a wall on a JCB digger and being pictured in boxing gloves with ‘get Brexit done’ imprinted on them. His overtly masculine style is similar to that of Nigel Farage, who is similarly unpopular amongst women. Amber Rudd, who said there was a ‘whiff of sexism’ around the willingness to back Johnson’s deal and not May’s pointed out how there are ‘certain behaviours that particularly men in politics want to see, that women don’t do much, and that Boris did adopt’ which may have helped with Eurosceptic colleagues’ support. This kind of populist approach to politics seen on the right in Europe and US does tend to be more popular with men.

To overcome his problem with women one of the first things Johnson could do is ensure his party catch up on female representation. The Labour Party now has more female MPs than men, as do the Liberal Democrats, the SNP have one-third women. The Conservatives still lag behind the other parties at 24% women. Whilst there is mixed evidence on whether women vote for women, having more female MPs has advantages in symbolic and substantive representation and can result in more policies that benefit women. Addressing the female electorate’s concerns could cement Johnson’s electoral base in the future.