Labour's macho men get secret lessons in wooing women voters

Stephen Castle and Chris Blackhurst on the party's attempt to be more female-friendly
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A committee of senior Labour figures has been meeting in secret to decide how to make the party's candidates more appealing to women voters at the next election.

The group, which includesTony Blair's image adviser, Philip Gould, shadow minister Clare Short, Carmen Callil, the publisher, and Patricia Hewitt, once Neil Kinnock's press secretary, last met on Monday, the day after the Independent on Sunday published an opinion poll confirming that Mr Blair was less popular among women on several counts than John Major.

At the party's offices in the Millbank Tower, the committee gave renewed thought to how best to woo women voters. The result will be a guide and presentation for all Labour candidates, telling them how to talk in order to appeal to women, the kind of body language they should use and what clothes they should wear.

Called Winning Words, the guide, which will also go to party officials, urges them and would-be MPs not to be evasive when asked direct questions, not to talk in the abstract, and to relate directly to people. Women do not like negative campaigning, so they will be instructed to be positive about Labour rather than attacking the Tories.

Ghettoising "women's issues" is identified as a mistake - policies covering women's concerns should be presented in the most female-friendly language.

Winning Words is not just aimed at men: women candidates and officials are also told the blunt fact that many fellow female voters will judge their clothes infinitely more harshly than men. The advice is clear: dress smartly and wear make-up.

The committee, the existence of which has been one of the party's best- kept secrets, was formed in the wake of the shock of the general election defeat. Some leading Labour women, including Ms Short, who then had responsibility for the women's portfolio, were quick to point to the "gender gap", the difference between the support the party could muster from men and from women.

Ms Callil, a leading feminist, directed them to the Australian experience, where Paul Keating, then Labor Party leader, saw his party's vote among females soar in the 1993 election thanks to a policy of making him and his colleagues appeal more to women. For the first time in an Australian election, more women than men voted for Labor.

The brains behind this was Anne Summers, an Australian journalist and feminist. She conducted research into the issues that women cared about and what government could do to improve their lives. Top of the list were better childcare provision, women's health and violence against women.

The crucial part came when Ms Summers set out to persuade Mr Keating and his predominantly macho colleagues to take the research seriously. Men had to watch videos of Ms Summers's women's groups discussing them. Mr Keating was made to change his language, incorporate women into his speeches, soften his tone, and acknowledge whenever he could that women had an extra burden on top of whatever other work they did, of raising a family.

In Britain, research illustrated the problem that Labour was ahead among younger women but they tended to vote less frequently than older women. Nor could Labour assume that this younger group would automatically stay Labour. Research showed that, as they age, women were more likely than men to switch alliegance to the Tories.

Further work noted that women tended to declare themselves uninterested in politics, but would go on to discuss national issues such education, unemployment, pensions or health care with passion. While men had a tendency to talk in abstractions, women spoke more about "people". More worryingly, older women were susceptible to the argument that Britain had declined as a power. That made them more hostile than men to the EU and to devolution, sentiments helpful to the Conservatives. As one senior Labour figure put it: "The Tories had never taken older women for granted. These issues were grounds on which they were playing."

These findings were distilled into Winning Words, which was presented last year to the Shadow Cabinet and National Executive Committee.

Recently, the committee has reconvened. Concerns over how females might react to Mr Blair and his team have been heightened by the US election, where Bill Clinton romped home on the back of the "mom's vote".

Ms Short said: "This is really serious, high-quality work. It is now being taken very seriously at all levels of the party."