Millions of women fail to vote. Did the suffragists suffer in vain? | Polly Toynbee

Tory policies have tilted against women since 2010. Even so, a last-minute battle for our votes by every party would be a fine thing

Why did nine million women fail to vote at the last election? Labour quotes figures that suggest nearly a million fewer women than men voted – although others think the gap might be smaller, taking account of demographics. But since women had to struggle so hard to get the vote, shouldn’t they be first in the queue at the polling booths?

On Monday, it’s the deadline for everyone to register to vote, and it’s worth remembering what women were doing a hundred years ago, to secure the right to a vote. They chained themselves to railings, blew up buildings and letter boxes, and more than a thousand went to jail. In prison they went on hunger strikes, demanding to be treated as political prisoners, and were brutally force-fed. A tough women’s body guard had to be formed around the Pankhursts, leaders of the suffrage movement, to protect them from attack wherever they went.

Worse was the scorn they endured, as objects of ridicule, seen as unmarriageable, contemptible, hideous, un-women. I won’t use the word “suffragette” as it was coined in mockery by the Daily Mail. They called themselves suffragists – and they suffered for it personally and socially, enduring much worse than current women-hating Twitter storms: at least now women under attack get waves of support. They didn’t back then, when other women often turned against them, afraid of social contamination. Women as a whole were not progressive – as their later voting habits showed.

A policeman restrains a demonstrator as suffragettes gathered outside Buckingham Palace in 1914.
A policeman restrains a demonstrator as suffragists gathered outside Buckingham Palace in 1914. Photograph: PA

When old battles are long won they become cosy and safe, shorn of risk or ferocity. Consider Walt Disney’s sanitised Mrs Banks in her sash in Mary Poppins singing: “Our daughters’ daughters will adore us / And they’ll sing in grateful chorus / ‘Well done, Sister Suffragette’.” Or the chirpiness of Made in Dagenham, the story of women fighting for equal pay who took great risks, not least against some unions. But now it’s a happy-ending musical drained of danger, cheered to the rafters, though trade unions are routinely reviled. History has a way of turning hard-won, uncertain struggles into genteel heritage. But telling women to vote because their great-grandmothers fought for their rights is as forlorn as telling children to eat their crusts because of hungry children in the Sahara.

The prime minister Herbert Asquith opposed votes for women not just because they smashed his Downing Street windows and attacked his carriage, but because he feared women would swing the vote away from the Liberals towards the Tories. He was right. The hard truth is that women getting the vote created a natural Conservative hegemony for decades. Women stayed apparently unmoved by Labour introducing the NHS, baby clinics, child benefit, abortion, contraception rights, and much more. Margaret Thatcher owed her 1979 victory to women – 47% backed her while only 35% of women voted Labour. Among men, only 3% more voted for Thatcher than for Labour. Not until 1997 did women, for the first time, lean leftwards – and they have done ever since.

Now Labour has a four-point lead over the Conservatives among women, according to average YouGov polls – while Labour lags two points behind the Tories among men (35% to 33%). That “Calm down, dear” was emblematic, alongside David Cameron’s failure to promote many women. Lurching rightwards, Cameron failed to notice that it was his lack of women’s votes that denied him a majority in 2010.

Since then his policies have tilted sharply against women: 85% of his cuts came from women’s pockets. Women were the heaviest losers from the million lost public sector jobs – good jobs replaced with low-wage agency work. Women suffered most in cuts to services for the old and children, and were hardest hit by benefit cuts and freezes. Ruthless benefit sanctions have hit women worst as they try to juggle children and jobseeking rules and are cut off when they refuse shift work.

Recently the pay gap has widened for the first time in years, with women earning an average 19.1% less than men. Fawcett Society figures show more than two-thirds of top earners are men, and that female managers are earning 35% less than men. Two-thirds of women earn below the living wage – and for every £1 a man earns, a women gets just 81p.

The parties might take note from the Electoral Reform Society’s chief executive, Katie Ghose, who says women “are more likely to make up their minds later then men, giving the parties extra incentive to reach out to women right up until close of polls”. A last minute battle for their votes would be a fine thing.

Put the party manifestos through a women’s lens and, because more women are low-paid and because more women depend on public services, it’s easy to see why they lean towards Labour. The surprise is that the gap isn’t wider. One polling expert suggests the demographic reason why: many more younger women do vote Labour, but there are more older women and – as Cameron is well aware – the old vote more Conservative. As the next generation of women reaches retirement, they may keep their left-leaning voting habits.


Polly Toynbee

The GuardianTramp

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