The preoccupation of both Tory strategists and Labour feminists with women voters can’t disguise Labour’s challenge: we’ve got man trouble.
Reversing the historic Tory lead with women was, of course, crucial to New Labour’s political project: a party cannot be a plausible ‘political wing of the British people’ by appealing to just one gender any more than one region or class. But Labour’s 1997 female flip is not enough to stack up the argument, widely heard in Labour circles, that it is women (and by implication somehow only women) who win Labour elections. At the 2010 election, as in 2005, women were still more likely than men to vote Labour. In other words, we didn’t lose the 2010 election because we haemorrhaged women’s support, but because we didn’t turn out enough women to counteract our decline with men.
I’m proud to be a Labour feminist and, with Labour Women’s Network, to be developing the next generation of feminist leaders; a tested, tough and talented cadre coming soon to a selection process near you. But for this to be a contribution not a capture, we need to face facts.
Firstly, while we should be proud of our record on issues from domestic violence to human trafficking (and when returned to government we should do more), we need to be honest about which policies are big vote winners with Britain’s women. Now David Cameron has appointed a women’s special adviser as my successor in Number 10 she’ll find, as I did, she learns more from Take a Break magazine than from NGOs about what women really want. While female voters consistently put immigration and crime in their top five concerns, feminist staples like pornography and women’s imprisonment simply don’t get a polling look in.
Secondly, even if 21st century feminism had been the way to women’s hearts, we still need an offer for the other half of the electorate. As the first government to introduce paid paternity leave we had a coherent account of progressive fatherhood – but our family policy was, in reality, a labour market policy in disguise, designed to attract unprecedented numbers of mums to the workforce. That is a progressive public policy objective for which we should never apologise – and one we should never allow to be pitted as an either/or choice with progressive policy aimed at men.
But it is time to admit that while Labour was relatively quick to understand and shape the policy imperatives around women’s accelerating entry to the workplace, we were far too slow to grasp (far less try to mould) the way in which globalisation and the decline of collective bargaining changed the nature of masculinity at work. Traditional ‘male’ jobs characterised by skill, status and stability have broadly disappeared: work in mines, yards and plants has been replaced with high turnover, insecure service industry jobs for which boys compete with the girls who outperformed them at school and outnumbered them at college.
Male displacement is not in itself a problem (after all girls’ exam outcomes were improving at the same time as Labour’s investment in state education was producing record results across the board, and that the majority of students are now women should rank with the franchise and the pill as great social revolutions of the last 100 years). But social displacement becomes a toxin when combined with social dislocation. The old routes of male socialisation – the working men’s club, the works football team, the trade apprenticeship and the union meeting – have largely been diluted or destroyed by a globalisation which sees work as simply a mechanism for realising shareholder value and not as a test of societal stake.
On the release of new Institute for Fiscal Studies and Resolution Foundation findings last year, Gavin Kelly commented that between 2002 and 2008 “women’s employment served to raise household incomes…but these gains were almost completely wiped out by losses from male employment income.” In other words, male wage stagnation and unemployment left a generation of men – Labour’s men – behind. If we are to avoid paying a further electoral price for that, we need to name the problem and convince men we intend to fix it. A vigorous industrial strategy (of the sort only Labour has the appetite to deliver) is part of the policy answer – but it won’t bring home the political goods until we are comfortable talking about jobs for the boys.
Labour began as a working man’s party, set up to guarantee for the working class male a chance to secure both an income and an identity. This is a proud part of our heritage – and a profoundly progressive one. Today it should lead us to build Labour’s next majority by bringing men back home to Labour – in the service of our progressive politics, not in spite of them.
Kirsty McNeill Is a consultant advising progressive organisations on strategy, advocacy, and organisational development. She is on the Management Committee of Labour Women’s Network and was a Downing Street adviser on external relations, speech-writing and equalities.