Jayne Dowle: Beware voting for Theresa May on grounds of gender alone

DON'T be fooled. A vote for Theresa May is not a vote for women. First and foremost she is a politician. She deals with the biggest picture. Her manifesto, now imminent, represents a strategy intended to appeal to the largest possible number of voters.

Theresa May confirming the dissolution of Parliament, but will the Tory manifeso support working families?

She is no Harriet Harman, who launched a specific women’s manifesto for the 2015 General Election, vowing to bring politics “to the school gate and the shopping centre”. The then deputy Labour leader focused on childcare, domestic violence, equal pay and the representation of women in public life. It was a step in the right direction, but it missed the point. All of these issues are not confined to women. Indeed, if progress is to be made, they need men to be engaged too.

In addition, within any manifesto, it is also wrong to imagine that there is a magic raft of policies which will appeal to all women, regardless of age, social background or family demands. The expectations of a young single woman starting her first job, for instance, are very different from a retired lady in her late sixties with a paltry pension and myriad caring responsibilities.

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That said, certain issues are guaranteed touchstones for women. Access to a free and fair NHS. An education system which gives every girl an equal chance, regardless of family income or geographical location. Care at both ends of the spectrum, from affordable nurseries for under-fives to decent and cost-effective help for the elderly.

To date, Mrs May’s leadership has hardly suggested sustainability in any of the above. Too often, her brand of caring Conservatism appears to be delivered from a lofty height as a series of soundbites rather than a coherent, joined-up philosophy.

What would really impress female voters then? To me, it’s pretty simple. As a self-employed mother-of-two approaching 50, the most significant matter is financial security. A decent standard of living, fair taxes and the hope of a reliable pension are top of my list. I’d also like to know that my children can access higher education and afford to buy a home of their own one day.

Most immediately, I implore Mrs May to give very careful consideration to the millions of us who class ourselves as “self-employed”. The recent debacle over National Insurance contributions betrayed a distinct lack of understanding from the Government. I’ve also heard some horror stories about laughable maternity pay for self-employed mothers, failed access to benefits such as child tax credits and precious little support for entrepreneurs.

In general, I’d like her to prove that the Conservatives really are the party which supports small business. There’s a good economic reason for this. I’d wager that women run more shops, cafes, restaurants and bars than men in your average town. It stands to reason then that crippling business rates and inflammatory taxes affect them severely.

I would also like a clear idea of how a Conservative government can best help women to establish a decent pension. This would take into account time they might be out of the formal workplace to bring up children and fulfil other essential caring duties. We should not be penalised because we are obliged to give up work to provide certain services for free.

Mrs May is renowned for her penetrating and analytical mind. However, I don’t think she always uses it to make the necessary connections. For instance, to her credit, she spearheaded a law which makes “coercive control” of a partner in a relationship illegal. This has given police the power to prosecute those who abuse women by emotional or financial means, hitherto very difficult to prove.

However, I’d like to remind Mrs May that whilst her new law was making the headlines, funding for the support services which rescue women and children in flight from abusive partners was slashed. Refuges have been forced to close and counselling services cut to the bone. I’m imploring her to join up the dots, on this and other serious issues which affect women directly.

Grand proclamations are good for the profile, but the reverberations echo long and loud. In this respect, if she wants to appear compassionate, she would do well to refrain from any mention of “vicarage values” and so on for the duration of the election campaign. It won’t impress the countless women who are working 12 hours a day and still have to rely on food banks to feed their families.

I’d exercise caution over any politician who made a concerted effort to gain my support purely on the basis of my gender. See what Mrs May has to say by all means, but above all, remember that your vote in a General Election should be an expression of confidence in a particular candidate, not in the party leader.

Scrutinise the individual who aims to promote your local and personal interests in Westminster. How would they vote on pension reform? Abortion? Student tuition fees?

Leaders set the pace, but it is most important to learn how seriously our particular concerns will be taken by those whom we can hold directly to account – and not just in the feverish excitement of a General Election.