Blair flirts, but female voters remain frosty to Labour

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR is still "unappealing" to women - despite the Prime Minister's efforts to woo female voters, Labour's private polling has found. The Government will next week launch a "listening to women" roadshow, with ministers touring the country canvassing opinion, to try to combat these negative views.

The move follows research which has found that the Prime Minister is failing to charm women - especially middle-class, white-collar workers - because they believe he does not understand their lives.

Focus groups of women across the country found that Mr Blair is perceived to be "remote" from ordinary people. Women have said that he is "smarmy", has "no perception" of what their existence is like, and that they feel the Government is run by men for men.

The poll results will worry the Prime Minister, who is acutely aware of the power of female voters. Before the election, he was said to have flattened his bouffant hairstyle in a concerted effort to build bridges with women. Labour prided itself on having closed the "gender gap" between male and female voters for the first time in 1997.

After winning power, Mr Blair appointed a minister for women to sit at the Cabinet table to prove his commitment to female voters. The Government also unveiled a series of "female-friendly" policies, including the National Childcare Strategy and the extension of maternity leave. Baroness Jay, the current minister for women as well as Leader of the Lords, recently relaunched the "Women's Unit" - now based in the Cabinet Office - with a high-profile call for more role models for teenage girls.

However, Downing Street has been warned that these initiatives have done nothing to repair Mr Blair's relative unpopularity with women. Although the Prime Minister retains high poll results across the population, female voters complain that they do not like the "laddishness" of the administration - exemplified by the football-loving culture of the new establishment. They have also criticised the literature and leaflets produced by the Government, saying they seem aimed more at men.

Baroness Jay and Tessa Jowell will next week launch a campaign to get women more involved in the process of government. They plan to hold public meetings around the country to ask women, particularly those who would not normally get involved in politics, what they want the Government to do on issues such as health and education. They also plan to put postcards in women's magazines, such as Chat and Marie Claire, which will allow readers to reply to the Government with their ideas.

The women's unit plans to publish the results of polls, conducted by the Government's so-called "People's Panel", about the priorities of female voters. However, Labour is unlikely to make public the results of focus groups about Mr Blair's personal standing.