Heat is on to use factor she

As the political temperature starts to rise ahead of the next general election, Labour is giving a warm response to the need to win over women. By Virginia Matthews

SBHD: As the political temperature starts to rise ahead of the next general election, Labour is giving a warm response to the need to win over women. By Virginia Matthews

In the old order of things, a woman’s place in the political process was clear. While she was usually too busy baking and sewing to pay more than cursory attention to how the country was being run, if pressed, she would usually choose the status quo over change.

She tended, on principle, to distrust the trade union-funded movers and shakers of the left, preferring instead to swoon over the well-groomed Flash Harrys of the right.

While she didn’t think that women were, on balance, intellectually suited to Parliament, she had a framed picture of Baroness Thatcher over her mantelpiece.

Being politically “active” meant preparing tea and cakes at the local surgery and perhaps having a special blue rinse for the Conservative party conference. But, unlike her sisters on the left, who said they wanted women to play a more significant role in politics, she could always be relied upon to cast her vote on polling day.

In today’s more complex political scene though, where some of the staunchest blue rinses want a political sea-change in Britain, the allegiance of women voters is becoming harder to predict. Which is ironic given that at the next general election – more so than at any other in recent history – both major parties believe the support of women will be a crucial factor.

Honest John Major has yet to directly make his pitch for what, in less questioning days, was termed the “petticoat vote”. He has concentrated for the moment on limiting Blair’s appeal in Middle England.

Yet the extent to which Labour is now targeting the female “consumer” was made glaringly obvious at a conference held last week by She magazine. Intriguingly entitled “What do women want?” – an echo of Freud’s famous plea that despite intense study of the female sex he still didn’t know what made them tick – it examined what female voters will be demanding from the next occupants of Number 10.

For Labour apparatchiks, it provided a welcome opportunity to market the left as the only political grouping genuinely to care about the fate of women.

To characterise education and healthcare as women’s issues is, of course, to fall into a gender trap that irritates even the staunchest of Tory women. After all, it is true-blue Virginia Bottomley, we are given to understand, who is quietly seething over the assumption that women cabinet ministers like herself and Gillian Shepherd are best at soothing the brows of doctors, or angry teachers, while their male colleagues get to grips with more pressing tasks such as managing the economy.

Yet, while no one with an eye to their political future would have the audacity to suggest that women are more wrapped up in the politics of, say, childcare rather than Europe, there is some truth in the view that women demand more practical answers from their politicians.

It is also perhaps true that women are more likely to see at first hand the lack of pre-school childcare or the ill-equipped primary school – just two of the so-called “women’s issues” that have made the leap from women’s magazine topics to become pressing political questions.

Tony Blair, Glenys Kinnock, Patricia Hewitt and comedian Jo Brand were among those speaking for Labour at the She conference, while David Mellor and Lady Olga Maitland flew the increasingly tattered flag of the Tories.

But, with such a marked imbalance in the stature of speakers, it is fair to say that the conference was designed more as a platform for Blair and company to show their wares after so long in opposition than a genuine, two-party debate.

She’s publisher, Karen Pusey, quoted a January Gallup suggesting that, after 16 years of the Tories, many women are now deserting their traditional role as defenders of the political status quo. Many are now in favour, she says, of restoring the railways and water industry to public ownership and even reversing NHS reforms such as GP fundholding and NHS Hospital Trusts.

Fifty two per cent of women are prepared to pay more taxes if it would guarantee a better health service, superior education and larger state pensions, according to Gallup.

Women are less sure about the issue of a fully integrated Europe or adopting the controversial Social Chapter.

Their expectations of a future Labour Government were by no means all positive. While they expected unemployment to fall or stabilise and hoped for greater public spending on health and education, they also predicted – and feared – higher taxes.

Commission on Social Justice deputy chair Patricia Hewitt stressed that, while older women are still more likely than older men to vote Conservative, her party had an eight-point lead among under-35 women voters at the 1992 election.

She said it might be tempting for Labour to concentrate on young women and leave their mothers to the Tories.

But not only would such a strategy make the mistake of writing off a large group of voters, it would also ignore the fact that while young women are among those least likely to turn up to vote on polling day, women of 55 or more are among those most likely to.

Glenys Kinnock MEP said that while it was understandable that women were not interested in the “men in grey suits” who appeared to make decisions in Britain – particularly not when only 62 of the Commons’ 650 MPs are female – the real politics of inequality at work or cuts in the Health Service aroused a passionate response.

Blair’s pitch to women was also unequivocal. While men, he said, “are worse off under the Tories”, their female partners are “doubly worse off”. He said poor pay and job insecurity had made them even less financially secure than men, and that issues such as the fear of crime or dwindling public transport systems had had a more direct and detrimental effect on their lives.

Blair’s new deal for working mothers includes intensive training courses for women returning to work after a career break and better childcare and nursery provision for the under-fives.

And what about transforming women from passive consumers of politics into actual shapers of policy? Well, Blair believes that the number of women Labour MPs could rise from 39 to 80 or even 90 after the next election – which wouldn’t be a bad first step.

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