Election '97: Worcester Woman gets the elbow

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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday disowned "Worcester Woman", the key female floating voter targeted by the main political parties, after evidence that she may about to jilt the Conservatives.

There was plenty of evidence in Worcester as the Prime Minister visited the famous china factory in the town that its floating voter has yet to make up her mind and may do so only on polling day.

Conservative strategists coined the phrase Worcester Woman when they realised that women in the C2 socio-economic group, married with two children, were responsible for rescuing Mr Major from defeat in the 1992 general election by swinging behind the Tories. It was this key, well-to-do working class working woman, rather than blue-collar Basildon man, to whom they tailored their campaign.

The Tories also believed that she lived in the key marginals in the West Midlands typified by the Worcester seat, where the Tories are defending a majority of less than 3,000 on changed boundaries after the sitting MP, Peter Luff, moved to the less marginal mid-Worcester constituency.

Michael Heseltine denied the existence of Worcester Woman when he visited the town last week and yesterday the Prime Minister said: "I certainly never coined the phrase Worcester Woman.

"I'm sure the people of Worcester, women as well as men, will cast their votes on the basis of the issues that matter to people - their prospects for the future, for jobs and prosperity; for better education, health and other public services."

But a vox pop among the pushchairs in the high street as Mr Major toured the Royal Worcester porcelain factory showed that many housewives are thinking of switching their votes because of their concern for public services.

Helen Witherick, 33, married to a carpenter, with a three-year-old daughter, Alice, complained about the changes and cut-backs in education. "There has been so much change in such a short time. Everyone is very unsettled," she said.

Mrs Witherick said she had decided to vote Conservative at the last minute last time and could do the same again. "It is definitely possible that I could vote for Tony Blair. It is equally possible I could still vote for John Major."

Christine Bennett, 37, with two children aged 12 and nine, voted Conservative last time but said that she was undecided at the moment.

A nursery nurse, she also complained about the state of education. "It is because we have had a lot of changes with education including the national curriculum, and the health service has had a lot of changes. I think it has been too much too soon and it has sent a lot of service into chaos. That is what worries me."

However, there were some worrying signs for Mr Blair. Mrs Bennett said: "I am unclear of Labour's position because of the changes they keep making to their policies. I am very unclear what they stand for."

Another housewife, Claire Williams, 32, with three children was disillusioned with the Labour Party under Mr Blair. "I voted Labour last time but I am thinking of changing because Labour have moved too far to the right," she said.

Worcester has never voted for a Labour MP in its history. It came closest to doing so in the Labour landslide in 1945 when the Tories held on by four votes.

Labour already has polling evidence to show that they could pull it off this time.

That evidence includes Susan Denning, 45, a personal assistant in a firm of solicitors, married with two teenage children. She said: "I voted Tory last time but I am thinking of voting Labour now. Tony Blair is a man of the people. He is young and he knows what people want. The Conservatives have had long enough."