Political parties have got to do more to engage female voters

Yes, Labour won the election, but there is much more the party could have done to engage and mobilise female voters, something it will need to address in future.

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Yay, we have the UK’s first female chancellor of the exchequer. Yay, the proportion of women MPs has reached a record high of 40%. In fact, pundits have even described this election as the most ‘gender equal’ ever.

But I worry about headlines like that. There is still so much more political parties need to do to properly engage with female voters, a group that makes up the majority of the UK’s electorate at 51%. I can’t help thinking the lessons we’re learning in our industry about getting marketing to women right are just as applicable in the political arena.

Last month, underwear brand Lemonade Dolls launched a campaign urging British women to vote, following a YouGov poll eight weeks before election day that revealed that 20% of women were undecided about which political party they would vote for.

Lemonade Dolls’ underlying message was that women needed to be encouraged to vote and reminded that their vote matters. Slick, powerful and starring the brilliant comedian Jayde Adams, the spot, out-of-home and social media activations were a lot of fun. But, the insight was off-base: as the Electoral Commission has shown, there is, in fact, no gender gap when it comes to turnout at national (or indeed regional or local) elections. Women vote as much as men, and in some instances outnumber them at the polling stations.

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The sexes do differ, though, in how far in advance of voting day they typically make their choice. Indeed, one week before the 4 July election, YouGov revealed that 67% of all undecided voters in the UK were female. Were they undecided because they were still weighing things up, or because there was no party they could immediately identify with, no party they felt seen by?

Here’s the rub: as a whole, Labour’s policies are typically more female-friendly than other parties, with specific commitments in the 2024 manifesto to tackle violence against women and girls, improve childcare options, ensure the minimum wage is a real living wage, and strengthen workplace rights. But the fact so many women were still undecided just a few days before the election suggests something in the major parties’ pro-women messaging wasn’t getting through and that messaging from Labour specifically didn’t land with as many women as it should have.

Inclusive representation is a win-win whether you’re in marketing or political campaigning.

Indeed, soon-to-be-available data from The British Election Study group is expected to show that while the elections of 2015, 2017 and 2019 saw the most significant gender gaps in party support in modern British history, with more men voting Conservative and more women voting Labour, in 2024 that gap significantly narrowed, reversing a generational trend of British women moving left.

Why? Clearly, there are analysts who are far better qualified than I am to answer that question. But I can’t help wondering if a lot of it comes down to low levels of female representation during the campaign. Partly that’s due to media reporting being dominated by men, effectively marginalising women’s concerns and rendering potentially relatable female figureheads invisible. Take, for instance, a survey from Loughborough University, which revealed that added together, Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage received a combined 70% of media coverage in the last week of June, with the then shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves ranking fourth with just 5% of coverage.

I’m not suggesting that female politicians automatically represent women’s concerns – hello Maggie – or that all women should or would automatically vote for left-leaning parties. But in the case of Reeves, whose plans are widely recognised as beneficial to women all over the country – and at a time when the economy has been shown to be the issue by far the most important to women in this election, more so than men – her marginalisation by the media will hardly have helped drive female engagement with Labour.

Should/could labour have used Reeves more in their owned channels, therefore, as a counter to the media’s bias? Admittedly while having to navigate the sexist ‘likeability’ double standard that female politicians face. Could the party have done more to ensure everyday women were represented in their campaign? Yes, during the party’s manifesto launch event, Angela Rayner – who is regularly trolled for her accent, how she dresses, her intelligence – spoke, and yes, we heard from a female student why Labour was the party for the youth. But the two women effectively book-ended the main speakers – three men (a business leader, a dad and a teacher), literal frontmen who Labour had cherry-picked to talk to issues of the economy, the cost of living and healthcare. Three issues that the British Election Study has shown top the list of those that matter most to women. Where at that manifesto launch were the female figureheads that everyday British women could identify with?

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A win-win

It’s a lesson our industry has had to get to grips with and continues to be challenged by. But overcome the challenge we must – inclusive representation is a win-win whether you’re in marketing or political campaigning. Research commissioned by the UN-convened Unstereotype Alliance and carried out by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School that looked at data from 392 brands across 58 countries has just proven definitively that progressive (i.e. inclusive) marketing and communications drive sales – delivering uplifts of as much as 16%.

Other relevant findings from the data: Brand equity is improved by progressive advertising with a solid multiplying impact, high-scoring brands on progressive advertising indicators are 9.8% more ‘meaningful’ and 11.8% more ‘different’, while strong purchase consideration is 1.43 times higher.

Some of these findings surely have implications for how political parties market themselves to the female masses. Improving how ‘meaningful’ and ‘different’ a target believes a political party to be is, of course, incredibly valuable in elections, while the ability to potentially increase short-term sales (votes) while also building brand equity is potent stuff. Personally, I’d want to see some detailed behavioural science research before anyone can persuade me that increasing the visibility of relatable female figureheads on the left wouldn’t lead to increased support among women voters and a return to the generational trend of women moving to the left.

Could Labour, for instance, have done more online to engage with female voters? Did the party do as much as it could have to tap into the magnifying effect of supportive, relatable women using social media, part of a group of “accidental election influencers”, as the BBC’s social media correspondent Marianna Spring terms them?

Using dozens of old phones, set up with the profiles of 24 undercover, fictional voters seemingly dotted across the UK, Spring tracked the election-related content being served up to the nation in the run-up to voting day. She found that a lot of the content that really took off this campaign was not paid-for targeted adverts, but amateur content that was getting as much traction as some of the parties’ own posts – and more than some of their online ads. Crucially, these posts could reach an audience who were otherwise disengaged from mainstream politics.

Why does all this matter? After all, Labour won the election. Well, let’s remember that their massive haul of seat gains is not due to the party’s share of the vote – at 34%, that share is extremely low in historical terms. Add to that the 60% turnout figure – the third lowest in election history – and it’s clear that yes, Labour may have a strong parliamentary majority, but its base among the electorate is painfully thin, with the modern trend towards women generally moving left likely to be shown to have significantly slowed this time around.

If that indeed turns out to be the case, one assumes Labour will be asking themselves how they can better engage and mobilise female voters, building a stronger, more connected, and more responsive campaign next time around.