They were Tony Blair's not-so-secret weapon in his landslide victory in 1997. But now women voters appear to be turning their backs on Labour under his successor Gordon Brown.
Until 1997, Labour had traditionally suffered from a "gender gap" in which the Conservative Party did better among women voters. Experts calculate that if women had not been given the vote, there would have been more or less a continuous period of Labour government since 1945. If only women had voted at the last election in 2005, Labour's majority would have been about 90, rather than the 66 it won. If only men had voted, it would be a precarious 23.
Now the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society is warning that the party could be hit by a new "gender gap" at the next election because women seem to prefer the Tories' approach to public services. It is accusing the Government of a "political failure" in explaining its multi-billion pound investment in public services and persuading voters, particularly women, that it still cares about people.
"The public thinks that Labour has lost its heart," said Seema Malhotra, director of the Fabian Women's Network. "The image of an unloved public emerges, turning its back on a state and a party that it no longer believes cares for them."
Polling for the Fabians by YouGov found that women believe the Tories care the most about the quality of services, while men think Labour cares most. Women are twice as likely as men to say they do not know who cares most.
Women believe Labour would run the public services less efficiently than the Tories, while men are evenly divided over which party would do better. Some 19 per cent of men, and 14 per cent of women, believe that Labour would be most efficient, while 26 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women name the Tories.
Only 26 per cent of women believe that services will get worse if the Tories win the election, compared to 36 per cent of men. Four out of five people think that money is being wasted in the NHS.
Writing in the forthcoming edition of Fabian Review, Ms Malhotra says the findings are "particularly worrying" because public services have been the key to Labour's electoral success. "This is despite record investment in schools, health services, education and communities – areas that have been seen as core to making Labour's case to women."
She adds: "With women still often managing the household budget, talk of expenditure without clarity on what is being delivered is no longer a winning argument."
Ms Malhotra argues: "There has been a failure to explain what has been delivered for the amount spent, which has become even more significant at a time of economic instability. Labour has failed to maintain a relationship with the public whereby they believe Labour does not just pay for care, but actually cares."
The Fabians say there are "chinks of light" in their research and insist the Tories are still vulnerable. A third of people expect public services to get worse under a Cameron Government, with only 22 per cent saying they would get better.
"The battle for public services is going to have to be fought on different grounds," says Ms Malhotra. "The real danger now is that the public will see the Tories as delivering the same but for less, and that Labour will lose control over public services for a generation."
A separate YouGov survey for The Sunday Times published yesterday found that 60 per cent of people want cuts in public spending to close the deficit in the public finances, while only 21 per cent would prefer the Government to raise taxes. Some 29 per cent of voters said the Tories would be better able to reduce spending while minimising the damage to services, while 24 per cent said Labour.
The poll put the Tories on 41 per cent, Labour on 27 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 17 per cent. All three parties are down one point on last month, while other parties are up three points to 15 per cent.Reuse content