Blair brushes off the gender gap

My problem is not changing my hair. It's keeping it
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The Independent Online
Westminster was in ferment yesterday over the issue which has been troubling close watchers of politics more than any other since Tony Blair became Leader of the Opposition two years ago - the state of the Labour leader's hair.

But the furore over the report in the Financial Times that Mr Blair had "flattened his bouffant hairstyle" in order to appeal to women hid an important shift in Labour's approach.

Mr Blair's hair appeared unruffled yesterday. However, it emerged that the Labour leader has indeed changed his tactics to appeal to women, after his advisers became anxious about the widening "gender gap" in his personal opinion-poll ratings.

They are worried that the Labour leader's "turn-off" factor among women is threatening their recent success in closing the gender gap with the Tories which had dogged the party generally for decades.

As part of the new strategy, Mr Blair yesterday visited the Great Ormond Street children's hospital with his wife, Cherie Booth, shifting the emphasis from meetings with business leaders in suits.

But has he changed his hairstyle? The denials from Mr Blair's office varied from the vehement to the jocular. At first, a spokesman said: "This is the blackest day in the FT's proud history of journalism. They have printed a totally untrue story about Tony Blair's hairstyle which the business community will be totally astounded by."

Then a lighter touch was deemed necessary, and a mock press release was issued, ridiculing the "hair-brained" story, and quoting Mr Blair saying: "My problem is not changing my hair. It's keeping it."

A spokesman denied that the Labour leader's hair was "one of the more frivolous explanations" for his relative unpopularity with women which came up in focus groups, small informal groups of undecided voters recruited by the party.

But The Independent understands that focus groups polled by Labour have identified a coolness or sexlessness about Mr Blair which may help to explain his gender gap. This contrasts with American focus group findings on President Clinton, who appeals more to women than men.

Mr Blair's staff did not deny that the Labour leader had shifted his approach to women's issues in response to opinion research. Hence Mr Blair's photocall with sick children yesterday, and his unexpected reference to women who had children in the NHS in the Commons on Tuesday.

Why did the Prime Minister not talk to them, he demanded. Those "who had children in the NHS a few years ago and [now] know of the difference in the standard of facilities". Labour's research includes analysis of the detailed breakdowns of published opinion polls as well as the party's own focus groups.

The gender gap between Labour and the Tories at the last election was 6 percentage points, as the Tories had a 4-point lead among men, but a 10-point lead among women. But the most recent figures from the polling firm MORI show that gap had narrowed to 3 points. At the same time, however, Mr Blair's own personal gender gap has widened from 5 to 17 points. Since March this year, his satisfaction rating among women has fallen by 7 points, while that among men has risen by 5 points, according to MORI.

It is understood that a number of possible reasons for these shifts have been identified in Labour's private polls and focus groups. One was the "rough treatment" meted out to Clare Short, demoted in July from her high- profile post as shadow Transport Secretary on account of her plain speaking.

Even before her reunion last month with the secret son she gave up for adoption 30 years ago, Ms Short was the most popular member of the Shadow Cabinet, after Mr Blair himself, in a private poll for the party.

In a blow to the party's current approach to wooing women voters - which has relied heavily on the "working mother" image of Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell - Ms Short and Margaret Beckett, the former deputy leader, emerged as the most popular women.

The private poll, conducted by NOP, also confirmed that women find Mr Blair "too smooth" and think he tends not to answer questions. Part of the smoothness may be related to the care and attention devoted by his aides to Mr Blair's hair, the style of which fluctuates daily, and which has receded and started to go grey since his election as leader two years ago.

When the electronic pager messages of his entourage were intercepted by hackers and published, one of the more striking was one from Anji Hunter, his private secretary, to Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, saying: "Can you do something about the hair?" Mr Blair ran into trouble with the tabloid press early in his leadership, when the Daily Mail accused him of having a pounds 60 haircut from an elite hairdresser at home. A spokeswoman said that a stylist from Michaeljohn had visited the Blairs at home to cut Cherie's hair before the 1994 Labour conference.

The story had uncomfortable echoes of American reports - which later turned out to be untrue - that President Clinton had held up air traffic at Los Angeles airport while he had a haircut on board Air Force One.

n Labour's lead over the Conservatives has fallen by 5 percentage points according to an ICM opinion poll for today's Guardian. This puts Labour on 47 per cent, down 2 percentage points from a poll taken during Labour's conference last month, the Tories on 34 per cent, up 3 and the Liberal Democrats on 15 per cent, down 1. Like other polls, this seems to reflect a "bounce back" after Labour's conference bounce, rather than a big drop in the party's underlying lead.