Abortion not the end for Cameron
After the revelations on BBC Newsnight that a proposed provider of abortion counselling could be biased against abortion, the spotlight fell on the Government and their acceptance of the proposed amendment to the Health and Social Care bill. In light of the revelations, left-leaning bloggers and progressive women have been furiously protesting against the amendment as right-wing newspapers set their to stall out in an intensely emotive debate. With undercover reporters being sent into abortion clinics, pro-life campaigning experts being imported from the US, religious figures being given airtime on the issue and individual politicians taking up the cause, all of the ingredients have come to fore for an explosive debate on an issue which many of us hoped wouldn’t have crossed the Atlantic. The government has now advised their MPs to vote against the amendment, but this issue is far from over. What does all this mean, politically, for the government?
It is important to remember that this amendment has been championed by Conservative MP Nadine Dorries and Labour MP Frank Field, and claims to have cross party support. The Government originally accepted the amendment, with quotes from an aide to Andrew Lansley appearing in newspapers supporting it, before staying true to form and performing a U-turn. Despite the U-turn it still has a whiff of Government thinking to it, and with the Lib Dems expected to vote heavily against the amendment it definitely has more the feel of Conservative thinking to it; especially since Conservative MP Nadine Dorries has been by far the most vocal on the subject. With a free vote given to MPs voting on the amendment it is difficult to predict which way the vote will go, and which party will end up inadvertently lending the most support to the amendment.
The main reason this has proved to be so controversial is because of the big difference in the definition of “independent” given in the amendment, and the public’s definition of “independent”. As a result, the amendment is in serious danger of being portrayed negatively by the public, and with it, the Tories. Should the Conservative party split on the vote, it may turn out to be even more damaging to them. A split party is bad enough, but you would think even more so on an issue such as this.
Curiously, if the amendment to the bill still had government support and were to be passed, or looked set to be passed, they may indeed have been able to fight the negative perceptions about the amendment by taking it on themselves. They could tighten the wording in the amendment, introduce a new definition to what they mean by “independent” providers, put in place a series of checks and balances on those wishing to offer counselling and investigate into claims against providers whose independence has been questioned. By relinquishing control of the amendment and advising MPs to vote against it, they have boxed themselves into a situation where they need to defeat factions of their own party to save face. At best they come out of it looking divided with groups of disgruntled MPs. If the amendment were to be voted down by a coalition of mainly Lib Dem and Labour MPs, it would be a minor disaster for the Conservatives. The amendment would forever be marred in controversy and associated with Nadine Dorries and CareConfidential, and public perception would be that the Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs saved the bill from the amendment against the wishes of many Conservative MPs who voted in favour of it, despite the Government U-turn. This may or may not be true, but the perception amongst the public has been that this is an issue driven by the Conservatives. Seeing as though there is a free vote on the amendment, if just Cameron and a couple of other senior cabinet members were to vote against it while the rest of the Conservative party vote in favour of it, the amendment would still end up being associated with the Conservative party. If the amendment is heavily defeated thanks to MPs from all parties, the question would be asked as to why the government chose to support the amendment in the first place.
All of this is yet to unfold, and despite the issue being briefly raised in the run up to the 2005 election, abortion has never been a major issue in British elections. It could however feed into a more general dividing line come the election. The focus of the debate on the abortion issue at the moment has centred around the counselling options available during the abortion process. The choice available to one demographic, women. If in the aftermath of the vote it is portrayed that Conservative MPs were in favour of removing independent abortion counselling services, to be replaced by those with agendas, many women will be outraged. This controversy will pass, but the outrage is part of a problem that the Conservative Party are having to deal with on a much larger scale.
During the lifetime of this parliament, the Conservatives have come under fire for how their policies affect women. The 2010 Emergency Budget was said to raise 72% of it’s £8bn in cuts from women. In the Government Spending Review, two-thirds of the £8.5bn raised in direct contributions were to come from women. In the 2011 Budget, changes in the income tax threshold benefited men to the tune of £680million, against £514million for women. This was while ignoring those below the earnings threshold of £7475, of which in 2010, 73% were women. Reductions in the childcare tax credit, the Sure Start maternity grant and the health in pregnancy grant, as well as cuts in maternity pay, cuts to Child Benefit and the subsequent three year freeze have all disproportionately affected women. With 20 Sure Start centres already closed and suspicions that the Tories are willing to offer tax breaks to married couples, single mothers in particular have been hit hard by Conservative policy. In employment, 65% of women make up the public sector where job losses are beginning to hit. Unemployment levels amongst women have hit the highest numbers since 1998 while in the past year, employment amongst men has risen. This trend looks set to continue. Added to this have been PR disasters such as the “calm down, dear” fiasco, The Fawcett Society’s legal challenge to the government’s emergency budget over it disproportionately affecting women, Ken Clarke’s comments on rape and the controversial sentencing reforms to go with it.
This puts the Conservatives in a bad position. Support for the Conservatives amongst women has fallen sharply in recent months. A recent YouGov/Sun poll shows 36% of women with an intention to vote Conservative. This figure is down from 47% in October 2010 (in November it was 43%, and in January it was 41%, showing a steady decline). During the same time, the corresponding figure for men has stayed exactly the same at 37%. This has coincided with the Tories losing the 4 point lead they held over Labour in October, to being 5 points behind. David Cameron’s personal rating amongst women has also dropped in a similar time frame. In October, 57% of women thought he was doing well as Prime Minister, by 26th August this year that figure was down to 41%.
The Conservatives need to change this drastically. They have lost female voters, and with it they have lost their lead. Labour have drawn clear lines between themselves and the Tories on issues affecting women and are in a strong position to win the votes of women. The current Coalition Cabinet has only 4 women in it. By contrast, the Labour Shadow Cabinet has 12. This is why you see many more female Labour MPs on television than Conservative. Not one for a reshuffle, Cameron will face problems even if he chooses to go down the artificial route of promoting female MPs from the 2010 intake to ministerial positions in the government. Already feeling irked by the lack of high-profile jobs available to them, due to the Liberal Democrats, there will be many male Tory backbenchers from the 2005 intake vying for the same jobs. To address this problem, as a politician may put it, the Tories need to go further and faster. With every major economic announcement Labour have stayed ahead of the Tories by examining how their policies will affect women, while it seems the government has failed to assess the impact of its policies on women. During the PR disasters the Labour Party pushed prominent female MPs to the front of the battle. At every turn they have been in the media telling everyone how a particular Conservative policy will disproportionately affect women. Yvette Cooper commissioned research on both the 2010 emergency budget and the spending review to show how women were being adversely treated by the government. These steps are signs that Labour know the Tories, as they put it, have a “blind spot” on women, and are keen to take advantage of it. Despite Labour virtually announcing this as their tactic in the press many months ago, Cameron and co have failed to anticipate it or perhaps even take it seriously. As a result they have haemorrhaged female support. Should the Tories come out of this female-focused battle over abortion relatively unscathed, they would be foolish to think they have won the war. Even more foolish would be for them to think that there is no war. It should represent the beginning of their fightback to speak to and for women. A fight which they need more than politics to win, they need policy.