Blair can keep his romance and flowers

In the real world, women are pushing forward. We vote not on the basis of shagability, but on the basis of credibility
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The Independent Online
Not since Rod Stewart wriggled his bottom and asked his rhetorical question, "D' ya think I'm sexy?" have I been so excited. Tony Blair is coming down to our level, girls.

The great man himself is to walk among us in "feminine settings", according to Labour Party sources. Hair becalmed, he will also talk to us in words of not more than four letters. None of this endogenous growth rubbish. No - he will talk to us about bills and housekeeping while dressed like Lily Savage. Let us not trouble our pretty heads about Europe and other such boys' talk when Blair can whisper sweet nothings in our ears about all the sweet nothings he is going to do for us when he gets into power. I had taken "feminine settings" to mean Ladies' lavatories and Ann Summers parties, but judging from this week's performance it means more pictures of Blair kissing the cheeks of babies instead of the backsides of businessmen.

They are all at it. Major is supposed to have had his voice lowered, and is boasting about his full head of hair. Ever since he took his jacket off, he has unleashed an almost Colin Firth-like power. The "arousal factor" that Clinton possesses for women has delivered him another term. Suddenly women are being talking about as a fluffy kind of block vote that can be persuaded one way or another by a bit of male grooming.

Astonishingly, astute commentators have pointed out that Blair is a man's idea of what appeals to women. Oh well, that's unusual for a politician. The mysterious F-factor remains as mysterious to them as ever. How could American women still go for Clinton, an adulterous draft-dodger, when they could have gone for an old war veteran who has been loyal to his wife? The idea that women respond to Clinton because of his politics, his empathy and the fact that whatever his mistakes he has chosen to be with a tough, clever and independent woman, is beyond them. Yet the advisers who have turned Cherie Blair into a silent but dutiful limpet underestimate our intelligence. Many women I have spoken to perceive Norma Major to be more independent and strong-minded than Cherie because of her resistance to playing the part that some may have wished her to play.

If image-making and media manipulation took place as it once did - behind closed doors - it would be a different matter, yet the fact that all this tarting up is done in public simply increases female suspicion. This is hardly surprising, since women are the experts in masquerade. Femininity itself is a game that women learn to play from early on. It is not that women judge by appearances alone. Rather, we understand the work and motivation that has gone into changing appearances, and are therefore not entirely fooled by them.

More importantly, however, Blair may not be appealing to many women voters because of his desperation to appeal to a small section of them. A campaign to woo the conservative women of Middle England is backfiring. The emphasis on family values, the presentation of Blair and his happy brood in their smart but casual clothing, his views on abortion, his pontifications about morality, leave as many of us cold. The words smug, smarmy, self- satisfied, are used again and again. What Blair's advisers (all male apart from a couple of "safe women", such as Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell) fail to realise is that if anything unites women it is that they know what it is like to be patronised, and they don't respond well to it.

To be told, then, that we are to be further targeted because a couple of focus groups have become dissatisfied is not good news. The gap between politics as it is played out and the rest of life grows ever wider. Even the modernisers of the Labour Party appear to live in the 1950s, seemingly unable to distinguish between sex appeal and the appeal of men who are at ease with women. This homogenous group of female votes that decides elections on the basis of fanciability does not exist. When polled, women actually are interested in competence and the ability to manage the economy, just as they are concerned with health, education and social issues. (Gosh, I'm almost making them sound like men. That can't be right, can it?)

What many modern women respond to, though - and I think they have responded to it in Clinton as they did with John Smith - is the appeal of a man who is comfortable with women, powerful women, whether they be colleagues, wives, advisers. Blair has fallen down here. His inner circle is male, the press machinery is run by men, and the cracks are beginning to show. Stroppy women are relegated in favour of Harman-like clones, as unthreatening as they are unexciting. Clare Short is immensely popular, and if any of them cared to look outside the narrow world of Westminster they could quite easily see the kind of women that other women like are people like Patsy in Ab Fab - a drunken slut. The blanding of the Blair agenda unfortunately means that someone like Patsy will never be Minister for Health. A Shadow Cabinet that can manage to patronise Barbara Castle - isn't she amazingly bolshie for a little old lady - doesn't bode well for any of us.

Once in power, Blair, we are promised, will loosen up a little. Another makeover beckons. Maybe he will even stop grinning. Yet for all the packaging, some of us remain interested in the contents of his package. We don't care about his flyaway hair as much as we do about child care, about public transport, about pensions, about the minimum wage. These are not "women's issues", whatever that means. They are merely issues that affect more than half the population. There is nothing more off-putting than being deliberately wooed by an administration offering "female-friendly" policies. We don't want government to be friendly to us, we want to be part of it, which is a different thing altogether. All this talk appears incredibly old-fashioned, as though women were passively waiting to be given a few little treats to keep us happy. Why doesn't the Labour Party just send us all flowers, chocolate and perfume while they retire to the smoking room to talk about what is important?

In the real world, women are pushing forward and, shocking as it seems, we vote not on the basis of "shagability" but on the basis of credibility. What is unattractive about Blair, whether it's his hair or his teeth, can be cosmetically corrected. His condescension, I fear, requires deep and painful surgery.