“Liberals cannot win a government unless they have a significant gap in their favour with women voters,” said Peter Donolo of the Strategic Counsel, a national polling firm. “They've got issues to overcome [such as] in Western Canada, so they have to find advantages where they can and a key one is women voters.”
Michael Ignatieff surprised some in the party recently when he promised that one-third of his 308 candidates in the next federal election will be women. The Liberal Leader was confirming a commitment made by his predecessor, Stéphane Dion, who actually reached the target for female candidates in the last election.
Women over 55 have traditionally accounted for one-third of Liberal support. The Grits often win a majority of their votes. But in the last election, women stayed away from the Dion Liberals, according to polling research.
“The facts are that the Liberal Party, if only women were voting, would have formed a majority government every election in the last century … but not in the last election,” a key Liberal strategist said. “Women voted for the Conservatives in the last election for the first time.”
A Strategic Counsel poll released days before the election showed the Conservatives were pulling more votes among women – especially older women – than were the Liberals.
“The gap probably widened, as a large number of Liberal voters just stayed home – and they would have probably been disproportionately women,” Mr. Donolo said.
His most recent poll shows that 38 per cent of women voters support the Liberals, compared with 28 per cent for the Conservatives. But he said the Liberals should be doing better. Other pollsters say there should be a 20-point gap between female support for the two parties for the Liberals to make gains at the polls.
With this is in mind, Liberal MPs are, among other things, trying to be more polite during Question Period in the Commons. Women respond better to politicians who are not hurling insults, Liberals say.
Winnipeg Liberal MP Anita Neville, the party's status of women critic, said she was shocked to hear a Tory MP recently speak derisively about one group “shacking up” with another.
“You're not hearing [offensive language] from the Liberals, quite deliberately. And that is a real effort to tone down … and be respectful,” said Ms. Neville, who has regular meetings with women in her riding and says they are critical of the behaviour in Question Period.
The message about recruiting more women was made loud and clear at a recent meeting of national campaign co-chairs and provincial representatives, said former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan.
Ms. McLellan said Mr. Ignatieff will try to avoid using his power to appoint women as candidates. This power is controversial as it allows the nomination process to be circumvented to reach the target of 33 per cent women candidates. Other leaders, such as Jean Chrétien, have used this power to place women in winnable ridings.
In the last election, the Liberals elected 77 MPs, including 19 women. Of the 143 Conservative MPs, 23 are women.
Liberal policies also have to be attractive to women. Ms. Neville said Mr. Ignatieff has recommitted to a national child-care program and pay equity.
However, Nik Nanos, of the national polling firm Nanos Research, said the politics of gender is changing because of the economic meltdown. Women are just as worried as men are about jobs, debt and money, he said.
“Right now I think we are in an interesting spot because playing gender politics probably won't cut it because the economy and jobs and recession are the big issues,” Mr. Nanos said. “If the election was about health care then you would be playing gender politics.… It's an interesting new dynamic.”