2010: The mother of all elections

Labour draws up plans to make going out to work after having children easier. All parties are scrambling for the mums' vote. Are they genuine, or cynical?
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Indy Politics

Britain's eight million mothers of school-age and young children are to be offered a major extension of family-friendly working hours as Labour does battle with the Conservatives for the votes of women at the election.

As a debate raged over the role of leaders' wives in the political frontline, Labour stepped up its targeting of "mainstream mums" who it believes could keep Gordon Brown in power.

On Mother's Day, David Cameron's "secret weapon" – his wife, Samantha – gives her first full TV interview, joined by the Tory leader's mother, Mary, in an effort to broaden his appeal as a down-to-earth family man to whom women can relate.

With the closest election since 1974 on the cards, strategists in all three main parties believe that courting women – especially mothers – holds the key to No 10 as never before.

The significance of targeted campaigning was underlined last night as a YouGov poll for The Sunday Times found the Tories' lead had narrowed from five points to four over the past week. An ICM surveyin The Sunday Telegraph showed Mr Cameron's advantage dipping by two points over the past month - to 38 per cent, compared with 31 per cent for Labour.

Labour has identified 53 constituencies where mothers could make the difference between a Labour and a Tory victory. The party is sending out personalised postcards to more than 100,000 mums who have told Labour activists they use Sure Start, claiming that the Tories will cut the projects.

The Liberal Democrats, gathering in Birmingham for their final conference before polling day, emphasised their theme of fairness in taxation and education to shore up their female vote.

This week, the Government will publish the findings of a "family friendly" taskforce into the working hours of parents. In response to the report, Yvette Cooper, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, will call for a "major cultural shift" in the way firms approach flexible working. Part-time work should not mean an end to career progression in a company, she says.

The minister will promise that from later this year, every time a new full-time vacancy is advertised in a job centre, the employer will be asked if the position can be instead offered part-time, as a job-share or another variant of flexible working. No firm will be forced to alter the hours but ministers hope that a cultural change will develop where employers look beyond full-time business hours.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday to mark Mother's Day, Ms Cooper, a mother of three, said: "This will give people the opportunity to think again about what could be offered. It is still the employer's decision what kind of job they offer, but it is a process of changing the culture. We want to encourage a cultural shift.

"This is in the interests of business as well as in the interests of families, because there are a lot of parents who want to work part-time when their children are younger. Employers should want to use their skills and talent and experience, which otherwise are being wasted in the economy."

The task force report, chaired by Women Like Us, will set out the "compelling business case" for part-time and flexible work – a riposte to concerns from major employers that such moves are dangerous at a time of economic instability. There are also plans being considered for Labour's manifesto for further extension of the rights of parents to ask their bosses if they can work flexible hours. Parents of under-17s can currently ask for a change in hours after working in a firm for 26 weeks, but this could be extended to parents from their first day in the job.

An employer must "seriously consider" all requests and can turn down applications only if there is a good business reason. Ms Cooper said that all Whitehall departments from later this year would offer jobs as part-time or flexible hours, but added that private-sector companies were also setting an example.

Business attitudes to flexible working appear to have softened, rather than hardened, as a result of the recession, the report found. A survey for the taskforce found that 65 per cent of employers discovered introducing flexible hours led to a fall in sickness and higher retention, while 70 per cent said such moves led to greater loyalty among their staff.

But the report also finds that part-time jobs were limited to particular sectors and a large number of people were working below their skill levels. In particular, the majority of women doing part-time or flexible working were previously employed in jobs at a higher level of qualifications. While the proposed new measures are offered to men and women, it is female workers with children who do the majority of part-time work.

Women are believed to be more likely to be floating voters, meaning there is still time to influence their ballot papers, yet there is no evidence that they have been key in the past to whether an election is won or lost.

There are questions over whether the right strategy is being pursued, because polling in marginals shows that the economy and crime are top priorities for voters, while education and health, traditionally more female-friendly policy areas, are paramount in safe seats. But this has not stopped party leaders from going for the "mums' vote".

Recent opinion polls have shown that women are less enthusiastic about the Tories than men are, although the Conservatives remain ahead of Labour among male and female voters.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, softened his stance on spending cuts earlier this year after alarm that savage cuts would impact on schools and hospitals. The Tories are to tailor their flagship policy, the married couples tax allowance, to parents of young children, also apparently in response to the polls.

Gordon Brown, Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg have all taken part in web chats with Mumsnet, the powerful internet forum whose 10th birthday party last month was attended by the PM and his wife, Sarah.

Ms Cooper, who is married to the cabinet minister Ed Balls, agreed that mothers were at the heart of the 2010 campaign. She told the IoS: "It is important to make sure the policies we are putting forward fit with women's lives. We have always challenged inequality and thought about what women want, and what opportunities there are for women. Working mums still feel they are stretched in eight different directions at once."

She claimed the Tories were planning to cut Labour's measures of Sure Start, child tax credits and the child trust fund, although the Conservatives have insisted they will target these benefits to those who need them most: those on low incomes. Asked whether someone could be leader of a political party and mother of three children, Ms Cooper said: "I am sure it's possible."

Mr Cameron will today attempt to widen his appeal still further by tackling his "toff" image. Challenged about his schooldays at Eton in an ITV interview to be broadcast tonight, the Conservative leader said: "I've never tried to hide anything about who I am or my background or where I come from. Look, if the next election is about 'Let's not have a posh Prime Minister', I'm not gonna win it."

Are firms flexible enough for parents?

YES

Katy Daly, 28, from Braintree in Essex, is an operations manager for a registered social landlord. Her husband Matt, 29, looks after their children Evey, three, and Willow, one

"I would work until 11pm at night so I could have more time with Evey in the mornings. But I found it really tough – I was tired all the time and was missing out on family life.

"When I went back to work after my second child I altered my hours to have more time with the family. We also decided it would be a good opportunity for Matt to spend more time with the children, while cutting down on costs.

"Now I have more responsibility and am working core hours, though I miss being at home in the mornings. My company's flexibility has made it harder to contemplate a career change. I'd be afraid another firm wouldn't be as understanding.

"At the moment I'm finding it hard to make a decision on who to vote for. I'm looking for a party to sell me something brilliant that will actually impact on my life – greater support with childcare costs and flexibility with work. Then maybe in the future if I wanted to move on, I'd feel safer."

NO

Lucy Harris, 29, an auxiliary nurse from Barry in Wales, has two children, Chloe, 11, and Emilia, three. She left her job because the hours weren't flexible enough

"I got a job with an estate agent's when Chloe was a toddler. They said they were OK with my working part-time, but I didn't feel they were as flexible as they could have been. When she was ill and I had to look after her, they'd say I had to take the day as annual holiday.

"I'm a hard worker and didn't want to ask for the time I needed in case they thought I was shirking. There were more men than women in the office, and I didn't feel they understood the demands of childcare. It adds a lot of stress for women.

"It should definitely be the employer's responsibility to be aware of mothers' rights to flexible working, but I had to find out my rights by looking on the internet, on the directgov website. Now I work for the NHS and can do my four-day week in two long days if I like. I get so much more time with the children."

The main parties' pitch on equality

Labour

Equal pay Harriet Harman's Equality Bill will compel employers of more than 250 workers to disclose differences between men's and women's pay.

Parental leave Nine months' paid maternity leave. From 2011, up to six months for fathers.

Childcare Free nursery places for three- and four-year-olds. Maximum £300 a week working tax credit towards childcare costs.

Retirement Women's state retirement age rising to 65 over next decade.

Conservatives

Equal pay Stronger anti-discrimination legislation.

Parental leave 12 months' leave for both parents to be split as they choose.

Childcare 4,000 extra health visitors. Abolition of child trust funds for families earning over £16,040 and of child tax credits for those on over £50,000.

Retirement Women's state pension age to rise to 66 from 2020.

Liberal Democrats

Equal pay Equal pay audits compulsory for employers.

Parental leave 19 months split between parents. Flexible work rights for all.

Childcare 20 hours a week of free care for those aged 18 months until school.

Retirement Scrap compulsory retirement age. Pensions to be based on resid- ence, not contributions.

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