Tea makers but not, alas, policy shapers

Good sorts, absolute bricks, year-round tea makers, fete holders and faithful electioneers - it is the image which still clings to the Conservative Party's "lady" supporters as much as floral dreses and sensible shoes.

As Labour looks for a way to hijack the female vote, it might do well to listen to Ann Dickson, 53, a prominent member of the Stirling Conservative Association. The recent BBC programme, Tory Wives, showed the grass-roots dominance of women in the running of the party machine; but Mrs Dickson says that the stereotype it presented seemed far from her own experience. Brought up in a working-class home in Motherwell, she joined the party at 18, rejecting the Labour politics of her father and mother.

"[The Conservative party] offered aspiration," she says. "Everyone in town worked in the steel works and the local Labour party was a dinosaur. It still is. I wanted to move on. The Labour party seemed to want everyone to stay in their box."

Mrs Dickson became secretary to the steel works' general manager at 17. "I could see that the people who voted Conservative were going to a place I wanted to be. They represented opportunity. They had a vision that I had not come across in Motherwell."

The Tory party, she insists, is fair to all - regardless of class. "It's not a party of privilege at all. We have a prime minister who was a very working-class boy, while Labour has a former Fettes pupil." Nor has she encountered any real sex discrimination in her party and is "offended" by Labour's proposals for quotas for women MPs.

Her neighbour, Moira Stewart, is also a Conservative voter. In her sixties, she is in the age bracket of women most likely to vote Tory. She tells a similar story. "I came from a working-class home. My father was very Labour. He always felt that the Conservative party was for those "upstairs", but I could see that situation was disappearing. People were getting more ambitious. They wanted to own their own homes."

While she thinks the still-prevalent "blue rinse" image falls wide of the mark, Mrs Stewart is worried by the lack of new female blood coming into the party. "The 20-35 age group for women is missing," she admits.

The lack of fresh female blood is also a concern in Caernarfon, North Wales, where women keep the local party going. William Hague is visiting tomorrow. "Who else will make the date loaves for the visit?" asks local activist Ann Pritchard-Jones, who puts her political devotion down to the party's encouragement of free spirit, aspiration and enterprise. But in her sixties, Mrs Pritchard-Jones is one of the younger members of the local women's branch.

Miss Sophia Pari-Jones, 55, a china restorer and fellow women's branch member, says: "Caernarfon Ladies have been marvellous and have raised quite a lot of money for the local association. Without the women I don't know what they would do. We have a Conservative Club in town, which the men go to; because part of the subscription goes to the party they think they have done their bit. But at election time we do the work. The women believe in the party, but whether they think about policy is another matter."

Karen Lumley, 31, who was recently selected as Tory candidate for Delan, North Wales, is vice-chair of the Wrexham Conservative Women's Committee. Only four or five of the 20 members are younger than 50 and a similar number are over 70. She admits she has found it hard to "get on in the Conservative party". Mysteriously, the greatest resistance to her advance has come from women.

MARY BRAID

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