The Tory party may be trailing badly in the opinion polls, but it is still a winner with female voters. Polly Toynbee reports
"Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, Blessings all mine, with them thousands besides!" When the Conservative Women's Conference opens this morning, the gathered clans will sing this opening hymn - not quite "Tomorrow belongs to me", but not far off.

However, "bright hope" is probably not the predominant sentiment of these female activists as they survey their party's dismal rating in the opinion polls. But of one thing they can feel particularly proud - they represent the Conservative Party's phenomenal success with women voters.

No doubt they will continue to be mocked as just a bunch of Hyacinth Buckets as they open their conference with the National Anthem, followed by a short sermon and a reading from St Paul to the Corinthians. (For a wonderful moment, when I looked this up, I thought it was I Corinthians, Chapter 5, which reads: "It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not much as named among the Gentiles", which was rather exciting. Alas, I had misread it and it was not I but II Corinthians, Chapter 5, which reads rather more tamely: "Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ".

These women, however, are no joke. Whatever it is they do, whatever it is they represent, it finds far more favour among women voters than all Labour's positive discrimination and promises of a Minister for Women. They cut more ice than Clare Short's anti-page 3 campaign or all of Labour's women's quotas and loud commitment to equality. Unfair, but true.

Women can be their own worst enemies: most women who have ever had the misfortune of trying in one way or another to mobilise other women end up secretly wanting to wring their necks sometimes. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, it has been the defeat of the women's movement, the awful truth that dare not speak its name in feminist circles.

These are the facts about women voters: in the 1992 election, the Conservatives had a 15-point lead among women, while Labour had a one-point lead among men. In other words, if women had not been given the vote, Labour would have won. There is a gaping gender gap of 16 points that Labour needs to close before the next election, and Labour members are busily giving their attention to it; their most recent campaign ventures into the Tory heartland of the Women's Institute.

Labour women's organisers will survey today's Conservative Women's Conference with puzzlement, searching the serried ranks for clues to their success. What have these women got that Labour's women lack? Respectability, self-assurance, a settled view of the world and their place in it, a voice for both high-flyers in the professions and proud-to-be-housewives, orderliness, obedience and a collective admiration for their own values. These, it must be said, are not the virtues commonly found in more left- wing women's gatherings.

The conference agenda follows precisely the concerns that opinion pollsters consistently find that women list first. It starts, of course, with crime, welcoming the further fall in recorded crime and urging Her Majesty's Government to continue its vigorous fight. The agenda continues with a paean of praise to the successful reform of the NHS, the envy of the world, followed by a motion urging a tax and benefit system to "encourage thrift and self-reliance".

These are people who know who they are and what's what: "People Like Us", reads a boldly self-confident headline in the address from the chairman (sic) of the Women's National Committee. PLUs are not afraid to be snobbish. Women are anyway more upwardly mobile than men, more socially amitious, they speak with less marked regional and class accents, and advertisers target their aspirational tendencies.

Since 1992 seers, diviners, pollsters, researchers and other prophets have been seeking out the cause of Conservative popularity among women. Distilling their collective wisdom from focus groups and other sources, this is the picture that emerges: young women aged 18-34 like Labour best, and are 7 per cent more likely to vote Labour than men. But once they reach 35-55, they become 3 per cent less likely to vote Labour than men. Among the over 55s, the gap becomes a chasm, with 22 per cent fewer women supporting Labour.

Is this a generational difference? Can Labour expect to attract more votes as this new generation moves up the age range? If so, the future looks rosy. Or do women become more Conservative as they grow older? Labour thinks there has been a real change in women's attitudes along with lifestyles. Younger women, especially ABs where support is strongest, go out to work, juggle children and jobs, need nurseries and think politically.

The most recent research suggests that, overall, women are less interested and less knowledgeable about politics. They are more sceptical about politicians, party politics is seen as a man's game, and hate argument and adversarial debate. They hate watching politics, and cannot remember what was said by a politician five minutes after a television programme. Older women, especially pensioners, are afraid of what Labour would do to the standard of living, plainly unimpressed or ignorant of Labour's past promises to increase pensions. Older women hate trade unions more than men do. They still hate Labour's cloth-cap image. In mixed focus groups, researchers found women almost always defer to the men, but plainly not in the secrecy of the polling booth.

Women like female politicians better in some ways, so Labour should score here with 38 female MPs and a projected 80 to 100 at the next election, against the Conservatives' meagre 18. But, being perverse, they are more unforgiving of female politicians and more likely to take against them if they become combative. They hate jargon and statistics. Women are less likely to take risks and so are less willing to take a risk on a new political party in power.

They want to be talked to quietly. Labour spin doctors are now talking about the importance of appearing on Good Morning With Anne and Nick instead of Newsnight, with interviews in Woman's Own mattering more than the Economist. Women want to hear politicians talk about their family lives. Women want to be spoken to gently, in big pictures. There is nothing wrong with Labour's message; the trouble is, women are not listening. They need parables, stories about how a minimum wage will help a mother support her family, or how a transport system can be made to feel safe enough for a woman fearful of crime to use it to visit her grown-up children.

What are we to make of this dismal portrait of ignorant, anti-political, air-headed womanhood? Tessa Jowell, Labour's Shadow Minister for Women, skirts delicately around it. After all, politicians are not allowed to go around blaming the voters. She says carefully: "I do want to avoid a stereotypical image of women." Alas, that is what the research presents us with: an image of women about as flattering as Flo Capp, Mrs Miniver, Doris Day and Kylie Minogue.

In the new year, Jowell is setting off on a consultation tour of the country, addressing mainly middle-aged women in Women's Institutes, Townswomen's Guilds and business women's groups, listening to what makes them vote Tory, and taking that wisdom back to find better ways of putting Labour's policies across to them. Well, good luck to her.

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