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“Cameron’s problem with women”:
the reporting and the reality of gender-based trends in attitudes
to the Conservatives 2010-11
Roger Mortimore, King’s College London/Ipsos MORI
PAPER FOR THE POLITICAL STUDIES ASSOCIATION ANNUAL
CONFERENCE, CARDIFF, MARCH 2013
In the autumn of 2011, there was significant discussion in the British press about the level of support among women for the Conservatives and for Prime Minister David Cameron, arguing that he had a “problem with women” and suggesting that this had arisen since the general election the previous year. A leaked internal party document indicated that Conservative strategists shared these concerns, and that they may have influenced government policy decisions. Yet study of the relevant opinion polls over the period finds the evidence to be far from conclusive, and the evidence cited in the press coverage over-reliant on isolated poll findings or giving a misleading impression of their implications. Our findings suggest that Conservative support among women may still have been as high as it had been at the general election, and that the gender gap in voting intentions was probably small or non-existent, and probably little changed. Further, there seems little to suggest that attitudes to David Cameron personally were damaging Conservative standing among women. We make a systematic survey of gender differences in poll findings between the 2010 general election and the end of 2011, considering what conclusions can be safely drawn about differential reactions to the government and the Prime Minister.
“Cameron’s problem with women”: the reporting
and the reality of gender-based trends in attitudes
to the Conservatives 2010-11
In the autumn of 2011, some sections of the British media began to discuss the low (or lower
than expected) support that the Conservatives were drawing from women. This quickly came
to be encapsulated in the phrase “problem with women”. On 2 October, Channel 4 News was
asking “Do the Conservatives have a problem with women?”1, and Yvette Cooper (the
Labour Party’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities) was saying “It is typical that
David Cameron thinks his only problem with women is spin and presentation”.2
In the next few weeks, “Cameron’s problem with women” became a cliché, used or referred to in headlines by, among others, writers in the Independent
(3 October3), Daily Mail
(3 October4), New Statesman
(6 October5), Spectator
(8 October6), Guardian
(11 November7), and Telegraph
blog (15 November8). By 19 December the Daily Mail
was allusively headlining the same phrase to discuss Boris Johnson9.
Clearly the phrase “Cameron’s problem with women” has connotations going far beyond opinion poll standings, and clearly Yvette Cooper intended to convey exactly this sense, as no doubt did some of the coverage in the anti-government press. But the underlying assumption throughout was that the opinion polls at the time demonstrated that female support for the Conservatives was in some sense lower than it might have been or ought to have been, and perhaps that there was direct evidence that this was specifically related to women’s reactions to David Cameron rather than a more general dislike of the coalition or its policies. Yet none
Channel 4 News: Do the Conservatives Have a Problem with Women?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMiK8iF2-5k&feature=youtube_gdata_player. 2 Yvette Cooper, “Typical That Cameron Thinks His Only Problem with Women Is Spin and Presentation. He Is Out of Touch - Cooper | The Labour Party,” Labour.org.uk
, October 2, 2011, http://www.labour.org.uk/cameron-is-out-of-touch,2011-10-02. 3 Mary Ann Sieghart, “Cameron’s Problem with Women,” The Independent
, October 3, 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/mary-ann-sieghart/mary-ann-sieghart-camerons-problem-with-women-2364724.html. 4 Melanie Phillips, “Calm down, Dave. Your Real Problem’s That Women Can Spot a Fake a Mile Away,” Daily Mail
, October 3, 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2044494/David-Camerons-real-problem-women-spot-phoney-mile-away.html. 5 New Statesman, “Leader: David Cameron’s Problem with Women,” New Statesman
, October 6, 2011, http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2011/10/women-cameron-government-child. 6 Hugo Rifkind, “Like the Conservative Party, I Have a Problem with Women,” The Spectator
, October 8, 2011, http://www.spectator.co.uk/columnists/hugo-rifkind/7289303/like-the-conservative-party-i-have-a-problem-with-women/. 7 Allegra Stratton, “David Cameron’s Trouble with Women Makes Theresa May Close to Unsackable,” The Guardian
, November 11, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/nov/11/david-cameron-theresa-may-unsackable. 8 Daniel Knowles, “David Cameron’s ‘Woman Problem’ Is Not Something a Tokenistic SpAd Appointment Will Solve,” News - Telegraph Blogs
, November 15, 2011, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielknowles/100117516/david-camerons-woman-problem-is-not-something-a-tokenistic-spad-appointment-will-solve/. 9 Sonia Purnell, “Does Boris Johnson Have a Woman (Vote) Problem?,” Daily Mail
, December 19, 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2074962/Does-Boris-Johnson-woman-vote-problem.html#axzz2K7Tb5ohs.
of these articles attempted an overview of the polling evidence. Those articles which directly referred to the state of the polls tended to cite a single poll finding, or to draw unjustified conclusions from comparison of polling results that were not comparable10, to assume the existence of a trend for which there was no evidence11, to treat an entirely insignificant change as significant12, or to give no specific details at all. Sometimes they directly contradicted each other13.
The patchy use of polling evidence by the press is perhaps not unusual. But in this case the unanimity of the coverage in assuming that “Cameron’s problem with women” existed created the impression that it rested on a solid foundation of uncontested evidence. That was far from the case. Systematic examination of the opinion poll evidence at the time finds no consensus on any of the aspects of the “problem” that were stated or suggested. However, such an assumption fitted the narrative that reflected opposition attacks on Cameron, theories of differentially-severe impacts on women of coalition policies and the Conservatives’ own concerns about the attitudes of female voters. Perhaps for that reason it was accepted unquestioned.
The existence of a “gender gap” in British voting habits has been a matter of interest for
decades. Historically, the pattern has been that the Conservatives have tended to perform
considerably better among women. However, this traditional view has been less true since the
1980s, and by the time of Tony Blair’s leadership of Labour the gender gap had closed,
perhaps even reversed14. Polls differ on whether the Tory vote was actually lower among
women than among men in 2005 and 2010, but it was certainly not substantially higher, as
would once have been routinely the case.
10 For example an Observer
article on 2 October (Yvonne Roberts, “Cameron’s Patronising Manner Stokes Women’s Anger Against the Coalition,” The Observer
, October 2, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/oct/02/women-voters-turning-against-coalition.) stated that “.after the 2010 general election, in one poll, 45% of women supported the Conservatives. However, female approval for the coalition has now plummeted to 25%”. Yet while the 45% figure was from a voting intention poll, the 25% measured women approving “of the government’s record to date” – Conservative voting intentions among women in the same survey stood at 36%. (Both figures were taken from YouGov polls, although the article mistakenly stated that they were taken from an Ipsos MORI analysis. Only YouGov found Conservative support among women as high as this in late 2010.) 11 In the Guardian
on 5 October, Hélène Mulholland recorded that “Support for the Tories among women is in decline, with just 13% saying in a recent poll that they feel the Conservative party is the one closest to women” (Hélène Mulholland, “Why Conservative Party Support from Women Is Falling,” The Guardian
, October 5, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/oct/05/conservative-party-women-support-falling.) – but the poll (by YouGov) was a one-off, not a trend, and gave no evidence that the position had ever been ever different. 12 Vincent Moss in the Sunday Mirror
on 16 October reported that “The ComRes/Sunday Mirror
survey found Mr Cameron’s female support slipping away to give Ed Miliband a two-point lead.” (Vincent Moss, “David Cameron Drives Women into the Arms of Ed Miliband,” Sunday Mirror
, October 16, 2011, http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/david-cameron-drives-women-into-the-arms-85768.) This referred to the voting intention figures, in which Conservative support among women was down one percentage point from the previous (September) survey, at 36% compared to 37%. In the survey before that, in August, it was at 34%! 13 According to the Independent
“As recently as the last election, women were more likely than men to vote Tory” (Sieghart, “Cameron’s Problem with Women.”), but the New Statesman
thought that “The Tories' disproportionately low support among women prevented them from winning a majority at the last general election” (New Statesman, “Leader: David Cameron’s Problem with Women.”) 14 Robert M. Worcester et al., Explaining Cameron’s Coalition: How it came about - an analysis of the 2010 British General Election
(London: Biteback, 2011), 286.
In historical terms, therefore, Conservatives might well wonder why they have lost the disproportionate female support they once had, and whether this amounts to a “problem with women”. But the phenomenon is not confined to the period of Davis Cameron’s leadership, let alone the period of his premiership. The clear implication of the media coverage in 2011 was that there was a new “problem” facing the party, and it is the evidence for that proposition that this paper investigates.
The impetus behind suggestions that there was a “problem” seems to have come initially from within the Conservative Party itself. In June, the Sunday Times
and the Spectator
both reported15 that the Conservatives had become concerned about their standing with women after studying the polls during the 2011 local elections, and the Sunday Times
used the phrase “the party has a problem with women”. Soon, David Cameron himself was said to be “poring ‘almost masochistically’” over the polling evidence16. In each case, the polling evidence referred to was a fall in support since late 2010 in YouGov’s polls: “45 per cent of women backed the Tories, according to YouGov, against just 34 per cent of men. Now that gap has vanished.”17
Expanding on the reports of Tory concern, an internal Conservative “Restricted – Policy” memo was leaked and published in the Guardian
on 13 September 201118. The memo stated that “We know from a range of polls that women are significantly more negative about the Government than men” - although, tellingly, it went on to say that “We don’t at present have a finer-grained analysis than this”, suggesting perhaps that the conclusion had been drawn from the figures in the published newspaper polls rather from the party’s own private polls and focus groups. At any rate, the memo went on to present “a long list of ideas”, including policy initiatives as well as communications strategies, to rectify the situation19.
It is worth noting, though, that many key elements of the later coverage do not stem from this memo, except perhaps by implication. Although the opening paragraphs of the memo were headed “The problem”, at no point did it use the phrase “problem with women”. Nor did it refer to support among women falling, the assumption which in one form or another was behind almost all the coverage, only that it was in some respects lower than support among men. Finally, although it was a Conservative Party memo, it specifically referred to women being “negative about the government”, rather than about the Conservatives or the Prime Minister.
It was as part of the strategy to win back women’s support, presumably, that David Cameron used interviews on 2 October in the Sunday Times
and on BBC1’s Andrew Marr
show to apologise for any offence he had caused to women by two much-criticised incidents in the House of Commons, both putdowns of female MPs. (He had responded to Labour frontbencher Angela Eagle with a catchphrase from a well-known TV advert, “Calm down, dear”, and had evaded a question from his own backbencher, Nadine Dorries, by joking that she was “extremely frustrated”.) These interviews prompted Yvette Cooper’s attack.
15 Isabel Oakeshott and Simon McGee, “Why Women Are Giving Cameron a Kicking,” Sunday Times
, June 26, 2011; Melanie McDonagh, “What Women Want,” The Spectator
, June 25, 2011, http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/7045243/what-women-want-3/. 16 Melissa Kite, “Never Mind the Charm. Women Want Jobs, Dave,” Mail Online
, August 8, 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2023185/Never-mind-charm-David-Cameron-women-want-jobs.html. 17 McDonagh, “What Women Want.” 18 Polly Curtis and Allegra Stratton, “Revealed: Secret Government Plans to Win Back Women,” The Guardian
, September 13, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/sep/13/government-plan-win-back-women. 19 “Leaked Memo on Support from Women for the Coalition Government,” The Guardian
, September 13, 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/interactive/2011/sep/13/leaked-memo-women-coalition-government.
Of course, the press was fully entitled to report or speculate that Cameron believed he had a “problem with women”, and Cooper’s attack on him for this reason. But they might at the same time have questioned whether that problem was real. As already noted, the various articles that followed were not entirely in agreement on how the problem was being manifested. Between them, they stated, implied or at least might have led readers to suppose that the polls indicated that any or all of the following were true in the autumn of 2011:
• That Conservative support among women was significantly lower than at the
(“a government that – the polls demonstrate – has turned off women
• That Conservative support among women was significantly lower than at some
previous point since the 2010 election
(“The gap [women being more likely than
men to vote Conservative] widened in the early, chummy months of the coalition. But
now that advantage has vanished.”21);
• That Conservative support among women was significantly lower than
Conservative support among men
(“.his [Cameron’s] party’s opinion polling .
reveals that Tory support among women voters is far lower than among men”22);
• That Conservative support among women since the 2010 election had fallen
significantly more than Conservative support among men
(“Female voters used to
like Tories more than men did; now they don’t.”23)
• That any of the above were true because of David Cameron’s personal performance;
• That David Cameron’s personal standing was lower among women than among men.
Some also based their arguments on assumptions that:
• Conservative support at the 2010 election had been higher among women than among
• There was a significant rise in Conservative support among women between the
We need, therefore, to take each of these propositions as hypotheses to be tested against the published polling evidence. This breaks down into two questions: did the state of voting intentions imply a problem for the Conservatives as suggested by the media? And does it seem that David Cameron was a cause of disproportionately negative assessments of the Tories among women, making the problem – if there was a problem – Cameron’s rather than his party’s?
The voting intention polls
In considering the state of public opinion, it is essential to bear in mind the limited evidential
value of any single poll, especially in measuring voting intentions. For most of the telephone
polls as currently conducted, after discarding “don’t knows”, adjusting for turnout effects
and making allowance for design effects caused by weighting, the total effective sample size
with which voting intention is measured is generally between 500 and 700 respondents – for
20 Stratton, “David Cameron’s Trouble with Women Makes Theresa May Close to Unsackable.” 21 Sieghart, “Cameron’s Problem with Women.” 22 Phillips, “Calm down, Dave. Your Real Problem’s That Women Can Spot a Fake a Mile Away.” 23 Rifkind, “Like the Conservative Party, I Have a Problem with Women.”
the voting intentions of women alone the number is of course about half this. Substantial swings from poll to poll are therefore to be expected from simple sampling variation, even before any ephemeral political effects are taken into account. Moreover, “peacetime” voting intentions seem often to be essentially volatile these days: in particular, it is wise to be a little wary of the September and early October polls, taken during the party conference season, when experience suggests the parties often manage to get a short-lived boost from the coverage. Any change in opinions should therefore ideally be sustained over a reasonable period before it should be judged to be politically significant.
For these reasons we think the best test of the various propositions suggested by the press coverage is to consider the average of voting intention findings across a four-month period. We look both at the June to September 2011 period – the most recent polls at the time that reporting of “Cameron’s problem” became endemic – and also at the September to December period of 2011, in case the reports were accurately reflecting changes that were still taking place, rather than changes that had already taken place at the time they were published. We shall also, since the question was raised, consider voting intentions in the September to December 2010 period.
We looked at polls from each of the five established polling companies (those that have been publishing polls regularly since before the 2005 general election): by Ipsos MORI for Reuters, by ICM for the Guardian
, by Populus for The Times
, by ComRes for the Independent
(all four of these poll series being telephone polls) and also online polls by ComRes for the Independent on Sunday
and YouGov for the Sunday Times
. For each poll we compare the headline voting intention for men and women24, averaging each pollster’s polls within a month when more than one was conducted, then averaging the monthly figures across the four-month period. (YouGov’s polls were weekly25, and ComRes generally conducted one poll monthly in each of its two series26; there were no Populus/Times
polls in November or December 2010, or in August 2011.) It is perhaps worth noting that there is no prima facie
reason to favour the evidence of polls from one of these companies over another if they disagree: all five were satisfactorily accurate in their predictions of the Conservative vote at the 2005 and 2010 elections, with only negligible differences between them27.
To measure Conservative share of the vote among men and women at the 2010 election we have a slight extra problem. If we take each company’s final prediction as being its estimate, we are relying only on a single poll in each case, with a consequent margin of error and, further, three of the five companies slightly underestimated Conservative share (although only by one or two percentage points), and may therefore show a slightly lower share among women (and also among men) than they might otherwise have done. Ipsos MORI has published a post-election estimate of the voting, aggregating all its polls and weighting its data to the eventual result, and this is used as Ipsos MORI’s estimate, but for the other four
24 Strictly speaking it is not possible to compare the headline voting intention of men and women in either ICM’s or Populus’s polls, since both companies apply an adjustment for voting by don’t knows and refusers at topline level; but the effect of these adjustments has been small during the 2010 parliament, and reading voting intentions for each gender from the final unadjusted table (the combined QA/QB table for ICM and Q1/Q2 table for Populus) seems valid. 25 YouGov also polled four times a week for the Sun
. These polls have not been included in the analysis, but testing a random sampling of them suggests that doing so would make no significant difference to the findings. 26 Treating the ComRes online and telephone polls separately would not affect the conclusions. 27 See Worcester et al., Explaining Cameron’s Coalition
companies we have had to rely on the final “prediction” poll and must therefore allow for some slight imprecision.
Table 1 shows the Conservative voting intention share among men and women reported by the five companies at the 2010 general election and averaging across all their published polls in the September-December 2010, May-August 2011 and September-December 2011 periods.
Table 1: Conservative voting share among men and women according to five pollsters
We can begin by considering the trend reported in the first coverage, of a fall in Conservative support among women in YouGov’s polls between late 2010 and mid 2011. This did indeed take place, though the size of the fall was exaggerated by taking the extreme highs and lows in individual polls rather than longer-term averages: our table finds a six-point fall rather than the 11-point plunge of the press reports. Even after this fall YouGov still had support among women a point higher than at the general election, and three points higher than among men. If this paints a true picture of the movement of public support, one might have thought that it was the disproportionate rise in women’s support after the election in 2010, rather than the reversion to the norm in 2011, which most required explaining and merited most Tory attention.
But in any case, YouGov’s findings at this period are out on their own. While they found that Conservative support among women had reached a 44% share in the last third of 2010, three of the other four companies put the same figure at 36%. Populus also found a slight widening of the gender gap, but through a modest rise in support among women while support among men remained steady; and because Populus polled only twice in this period the change is not significant. The other three companies found little movement in the loyalties of either men or women by the end of 2010. The evidence, therefore, is at best mixed.
But in any case, the general impression which most of the “problem with women” reports conveyed was not that it consisted simply of the fading of a brief post-election boom in female support, but rather that the Conservatives were significantly weaker among women
than among men, and that this was new. We should therefore test the various other propositions already stated. It is perhaps simplest to present the conclusions in tabular form (Table 2).
It will be seen that if we take the June to September 2011 period as the criterion, none of the four propositions is supported to a statistically significant degree by three of the five pollsters; in fact only one is supported by any of them, and that the one with the most ambiguous implications. At the time the press was writing so prolifically about a Conservative “problem with women”, their support among women does not seem to have been lower than their support among men, had not fallen more than their support among men had since the general election, and was not significantly lower than at the general election. As far as voting intention support goes, the evidence was almost entirely contrary to the impression that the coverage must have given.
Table 2: Summary of pollsters’ findings
Conservative support among women was significantly
lower in mid 2011 than at the 2010 election
Conservative support among women was significantly
Conservative support among women in mid 2011 was
significantly lower than Conservative support among men
Conservative support among women fell significantly more
than Conservative support among men between the 2010 election and mid 2011
Conservative support among women was significantly
lower in late 2011 than at the 2010 election
Conservative support among women was significantly
Conservative support among women in late 2011 was
significantly lower than Conservative support among men
Conservative support among women fell significantly more
than Conservative support among men between the 2010 election and late 2011
Conservative support among women rose significantly
* True only if we allow a negative “fall” – YouGov found no fall in support among women but a rise among men. § A 3-point difference, but not statistically significant
Using instead the September to December 2011 figures, so extending the period to the end of the year, the case for believing in a Conservative “problem” is slightly stronger. Three pollsters find a fall in support among women since late 2010, and in each case this also translates to a movement in the gender gap since the election, performance among women having been weaker than among men. But even this consensus is more apparent than real. ICM found a seven-point gender gap in late 2011 with women’s support for the Tories having fallen since the election while men’s was unchanged, and Populus found a sharper fall in women’s support but also a fall among men (though not a statistically significant one), while YouGov found no gender gap and women’s support at its election level (the “problem” in this case being that the Tories had held on to post-election gains among men but not among women). The political implications of these three narratives are so different as to diminish the value of the apparent agreement between them on the central question. Only two of the five
pollsters found support among women significantly lower than it had been at the general election or significantly lower than support among men. Therefore while it is arguable that there might have been by the end of 2011 a tangible “problem with women” in voting support, the evidence is still inconclusive and draws on polls that had not yet been conducted when the press coverage was at its height.
Polls on other political attitudes
The separate question of how public perceptions of David Cameron and of the government in
general interacted with Conservative support cannot be addressed from the voting intention
polls alone. The relevant questions are mostly not asked in a comparable way by more than
one polling company, and we therefore confine our analysis in this section to Ipsos MORI
data. This offers further evidence as to whether there was an important gender gap in attitudes
in 2011 as well as on whether perceptions of David Cameron made an important contribution
Table 3: Satisfaction with the government and Prime Minister
Q. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way the Government is running the country?
Q. Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way Mr Cameron is doing his job as Prime
+1 -11 -22 -32 -22 -31 -22 -33
Base: c. 1,000 GB adults aged 18+ each month Source: Ipsos MORI Political Monitor
Ipsos MORI’s monthly satisfaction questions distinguish between attitudes to the government as a whole and the Prime Minister specifically, and are also not affected (as voting intentions probably are) by comparisons with the opposition parties and the perceived fitness of the alternative government to take power. Table 3 shows the answers to these questions aggregated over the whole post-election of 2010, and all of 2011 and, for completeness, 2012. It will be seen that the figures for the June to September and September to December periods of 2011, on which the voting intention analysis concentrated, do not differ materially from those for the whole year.
The most obvious feature of the figures is the trend – both government and Prime Minister steadily lost support as the parliament progressed. But we can also see that there is a clear difference between men and women across the whole period, with net satisfaction lower for women than for men in each case – furthermore, the size of this gender gap is noticeably bigger than the gender gap in voting intentions in the same polls. In the case of satisfaction with the government the gender gap appears static, perhaps even closing fractionally; for
satisfaction with Cameron, on the other hand, the gap seems to have widened a little. Nevertheless, although this movement is just statistically significant and may be an indicator of underlying political forces, it is too small a change in itself to be of much political substance. On the whole we would be justified in saying that women are clearly and consistently less approving of the performance of the government and Prime Minister than men, but there is no evidence to suggest any great change in the situation as time has gone by. If there is a “problem with women”, it is not on this evidence one that was new in 2011.
Table 4: Conservative Party image, September 2011
Q. I am going to read out some things both favourable and unfavourable that have
been said about various political parties. Which of these, if any, do you think apply to
the Conservative Party?
Looks after the interests of people like me
Source: Ipsos MORI/Reuters Political Monitor Base: 1,008 GB adults aged 18+, 10-12 September 2011
A more detailed consideration of men’s and women’s views of the Conservatives and of Cameron is offered by in Ipsos MORI’s “party image” and “leader image” questions. Unlike the satisfaction questions these are only occasionally included in the Political Monitor survey, but conveniently the September 2011 survey was one in which they appeared. As Tables 4 and 5 show, these too show much more clearly than the voting intentions a less favourable view taken by women than by men. Of the nine descriptions of the Conservative Party that were tested, women took a significantly more critical view of the party than men on seven, and their views were similar on the two remaining; on none were women significantly more favourable. The story is the same with attributes applied to Cameron personally: five of nine on which women rated Cameron worse, four where there was little to choose between women and men, and none on which women were more generous.
However, while the gulf in opinions between men and women on some of the leader and image questions is wide, the difference is considerably bigger on positive than negative descriptions: men are considerably more likely than women to apply a positive description to the Tories or to Cameron, but only slightly less likely to apply negative descriptions (in fact, the latter difference is not statistically significant in either case). The same pattern can be seen Cameron’s satisfaction scores, at least before 2012 (Table 3) – there is a difference
between men and women but in manifests itself in the women being considerably less positive but not much more negative.
Table 5: David Cameron’s image, September 2011
Q. I am going to read out some things both favourable and unfavourable that have been
said about various politicians. Which of these, if any, do you think apply to David
Puts the interests of the country above those of his own party
Source: Ipsos MORI/Reuters Political Monitor Base: 1,008 GB adults aged 18+, 10-12 September 2011
Taking the average of these four comparisons – two positive and two negative - we find a gender gap on image of only five percentage points. As the gender gap on voting intentions was higher with this sample of respondents than the Ipsos MORI average (the Conservatives scored 39% among men and 32% among women in this poll), the difference in the image profiles is therefore well in line with the difference in voting intentions after all.
Cameron or the party?
Let us turn now to considering how far the evidence supports blaming David Cameron for the
Conservatives’ having lower ratings among women than among men. Returning to Table 3,
we can see that throughout the period, David Cameron’s rating as Prime Minister was
consistently better than that of the government he led. However, that is almost invariably true
of any Prime Minister, and may owe something to a greater reluctance among some of the
public to criticise people than to criticise institutions; it may or may not indicate that attitudes
towards the Prime Minister are not the government’s main image problem28. Nevertheless,
for our purposes we need to note that this is true for men and women alike. In fact, at least in
28 The phenomenon is a well-established one: there is known to be a “positivity” or “leniency” bias in personal assessments - see Roger Tourangeau, Lance J. Rips, and Kenneth Rasinski, The Psychology of Survey Response
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 240–241. - including evaluations of political leaders. However, this does not necessarily mean that there is anything misleading in taking the figures at face value. Lau et al., in “The Positivity Bias in Evaluations of Public Figures: Evidence Against Instrument Artifacts,” Public Opinion Quarterly
43 (1979): 347–358., investigated and concluded that the positivity bias in the case of political figures was not simply an artefact of the survey measurement and therefore by implication reflected genuinely positive attitudes towards the subject.
2010 and 2011, Cameron’s satisfaction score surpassed the government’s score by a wider margin among women than men.
Similarly in the image questions (Tables 4 and 5), while the ratings are consistently worse among women this is no truer of responses about Cameron than about the Conservatives. The gender gap is in fact slightly more marked in the responses about the party than in the responses about Cameron, both overall and in responses on the single item included in both lists, of understanding the problems facing Britain. Furthermore, if women’s negative attitudes towards Cameron were driven by personal factors such as his patronising behaviour towards female MPs, as some of his critics were suggesting, we would surely expect to find this reflected most strongly in the “empathetic” assessments of him rather than in assessments of his competence. Yet women differed most strongly from men in doubting his capability as a leader, sound judgment and whether he was good in a crisis, while being almost as likely as men to find him likeable and not significantly more likely to feel him “out of touch”. Nor was this gender gap a new one: his ratings among women were already lower than among men in an Ipsos MORI poll almost immediately after the election29.
We can draw similar conclusions from a question perhaps better suited to distinguishing between attitudes to Cameron and his party since it specifically asks respondents to do so. In January 2011 and again in October 2012, Ipsos MORI asked their respondents – in a single question - whether they liked Cameron and whether they liked the Conservative Party. Here, therefore, to the fullest extent, they were asked to disentangle their views of the party from the leader, rather than reflecting their views of one in their responses about the other. If Cameron was in any sense a liability to his party, either generally or among a particular group of voters, it ought to be evident here. In fact, as far as the gender gap is concerned, no such situation emerges (Table 6): the views of men and women are almost identical (and, furthermore, in both sexes twice as many say they like Cameron but not the Conservatives as say the opposite). This would seem to confirm the impression that, however deep the Conservatives’ “problem with women”, it is probably both unjust and a misunderstanding of the causes of the situation to portray it as being “Cameron’s problem”.
Table 6: Like Him? Like His Party?
Q. Which of these statements comes closest to your views of David Cameron and
the Conservative Party?
I like David Cameron and I like the Conservative Party
I like David Cameron but I do not like the Conservative Party
I do not like David Cameron but I like the Conservative Party
I do not like David Cameron and I do not like the Conservative Party
Source: Ipsos MORI/Reuters Political Monitor Base: 1,162 GB adults aged 18+, 21-24 January 2011; 1,005 GB adults aged 18+, 20-24 October 2012
29 On 13-18 May 2010: this was a face-to-face poll using a showcard with similar but not identical questions, so figures are not directly comparable. (http://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2615/Leader-and-Party-Image-May-2010.aspx).
Discussion and conclusions
During the course of 2011, several journalists seem to have received leaks from within the
Conservative hierarchy indicating that the party was worried about its standing with women,
and the internal memo obtained by the Guardian
seems to confirm those leaks as true.
Naturally the media reported this story, and the use that the Labour Party made of it to attack
the government. But they also took the Conservative diagnosis as fact, and our investigation
of the figures from the published opinion polls – all of which were available to journalists at
the time since all of the pollsters publish gender breakdowns of their findings on their
websites, in line with British Polling Council rules – suggests that the premise was at the
very least open to question. Further, the press certainly helped to characterise the situation as
“Cameron’s problem with women”, apparently personalising the causes of the supposed
problem in a way that the polling data seem to contradict.
There are several pertinent facts about the polling data that a little investigation would have revealed. First, that although some findings such as the satisfaction scores showed greater discontent among women than men, this was less clearly reflected in voting intentions – while voting intentions are not the be-all and end-all of political opinion and a Conservative concern about the potential effect of being poorly rated by women on other measures would be perfectly reasonable, best reporting practice would clearly distinguish between the two.
Secondly, the evidence that we have considered contains nothing that points toward David Cameron having been in 2011 a particular liability for his party. Possibly there is other evidence in one-off polls that have not been drawn to our attention which would support this, but if so the coverage that linked reports of a Conservative “problem” with discussion of Cameron’s character and behaviour failed to quote it.
Thirdly, as far as voting intentions were concerned, the three key interpretations that most readers would be likely to put on the idea of a Conservative “problem with women” were all unsupported by the polls, properly read, up to the end of September 2011: Conservative support among women was not
lower than their support among men, there had not
been a big fall in women’s support for the Tories since the election, and women’s support had not
declined relative to that of men since the election. There was not even significant disagreement between the pollsters on this.
Fourthly, there was one specific proposition that did find support, but only from some of the polls. This was the YouGov finding that Tory support among women had risen considerably between the election and the end of 2010, but had fallen back again by the middle of 2011. Because of the frequency of YouGov’s polling, the combined sample sizes involved are entirely adequate to be sure this was not merely a freak of sampling variation: taken in isolation, the YouGov polls could be considered adequate evidence. However, they cannot be taken in isolation. Of the other four pollsters, three find an entirely contradictory pattern of little movement; the fourth, Populus, had intermediate results that are not firmly in either camp. Again, taken purely in isolation if YouGov had not polled, the other four companies together would amount to a sufficient weight of evidence to conclude that no such movement occurred.
This contradiction between the polls is a very clear case of a “house effect”. YouGov’s findings were, for a period, systematically different from those of the other companies, and it is a reasonable assumption that this arose in some way from differences in methodology. It is almost inevitable that such differences will occasionally arise. Each company conducts its polls and makes its calculations in the way it judges best suited to making an accurate
measurement, but their judgments on which is the best method do differ. When the resulting findings differ as a consequence, clearly at least one is wrong. But as the pollsters discovered at the 1992 election, unanimity of methods producing unanimity of findings is no guarantee that the polls are not all
wrong. Mere weight of numbers, in that YouGov is outvoted in this instance by three-to-one, is no proof that YouGov is wrong. But nor is the mere fact that YouGov polls more frequently an argument that the other companies are wrong; with none of the companies relying on pure probability sampling, weight of sample size alone proves nothing.
Of course, it is not realistic to expect the newspapers to explore every nuance and contradiction of the polls and never to report a finding without consulting half a dozen competing sources. When pollsters disagree, it is not entirely unreasonable for journalists to pick their horse and stick to it, even if to report a difference of opinion might be less misleading. Certainly if they have paid for a poll from one company they should feel free to report it – providing they do so responsibly and accurately – without looking over their shoulders at the findings provided by a different company to their rivals. The Sunday Times
quite reasonably turned to their own YouGov polls to complement their reporting of disquiet at Conservative headquarters.
But other newspapers might easily have found that other pollsters disagreed and that the evidence was by no means so clear cut as the YouGov figures alone suggested. They might also have questioned the political implications that were being read into the YouGov figures: the rise in support among women after the election was as dramatic as the subsequent fall away from that peak, and one might suppose that understanding such a swing would depend as much on knowing what women felt the Tories were doing right in 2010 as on what they were doing wrong in 2011. But none of the coverage considered this aspect of the situation.
Furthermore, many of the articles we considered were guilty of quoting individual poll findings in a way that took insufficient account of the limits of the precision with which they can measure public attitudes. Journalists should be especially wary when the margin of error in the finding is greater than their readers or viewers might expect, and of the impression created by quoting one extreme figure within a more measured discussion of general trends. Comparing an isolated high-point at one period and an isolated low-point at another as an indication of change almost necessarily magnifies the real change by a considerable factor. This is especially true of voting intention measurements (which use only part of a survey’s sample size because a significant proportion of the electorate do not vote), and any measure of the “gender gap” involves splitting this already diminished sample in two and comparing the two halves.
It is not the fault of the polls that this cannot be done to any useful degree of precision within the compass of a single poll – it is something for which the polls are not designed, and a function for which they are unsuitable. The laws of statistics dictate that even a perfectly designed and conducted poll produces occasional rogue results; furthermore, the smaller the sample sizes involved, the more extreme the variation that must be expected to occur without even being, technically, a rogue result. Most of a newspaper’s readers will be unaware of the technicalities of sampling, and may take figures at face value without allowing for a realistic margin of error. They need to be protected from such misunderstandings, and it is the responsible journalist’s job to give them this protection through restraint in reporting.
Looking back at 2011 from a historical perspective, the view is perhaps slightly different. The polls in the last third of the year offer at least some support that a more substantial “problem
with women” may have been developing which was not established before the autumn. It is not impossible that the reason this new problem developed was the Tories’ perception of an existing problem, Cameron’s attempts to solve this and Labour’s reactions to his efforts establishing the idea of “Cameron’s problem with women” in the political lexicon. But even on whether the “problem” was real by the end of the year, the evidence is far from conclusive.
Channel 4 News: Do the Conservatives Have a Problem with Women?
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