Disenchanted women desert Labour

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Tony Blair has been warned that women are losing faith in the Government because it has failed to honour its pledges to improve health and education.

Ministers are drawing up urgent plans to win back the support of disenchanted women after new opinion research showed they were the crucial floating voters who could decide the next general election.

In an interview with The Independent, Tessa Jowell, the minister for Women, called on the Government to boost its appeal to women by adopting a less confrontational style and a new political culture. She also issued a blunt warning to Labour that its campaign to secure more female MPs could end in failure unless constituency parties selected more women for winnable seats over the next few months.

The new research was presented to a private seminar on women's attitudes to politics at Downing Street last month, which was attended by several ministers and key aides of Mr Blair. It revealed that satisfaction ratings with the Government's performance were 13 points lower among women than men. This raises the prospect of a return to the "gender gap", which helped the Tories to retain power for 18 years until Labour eliminated it at the 1997 election.

"Women remain the most vulnerable element of Labour's vote," a report to the meeting said. "Women see the world very differently from men; politics needs to reflect this. Women had high expectations of New Labour; these expectations have not yet been met."

Deborah Mattinson, director of Opinion Leader Research and a Labour adviser on women's issues, said in her report: "Labour must continue to reassure that 'macho' Old Labour is dead... We need some symbolic acts of 'a different style' of government."

The polling listed female concerns as education (class sizes, standards, discipline); health (waiting lists, staffing issues, priority illnesses); the cost of living (mortgages, prices, pay, benefits, child care); crime and "managing their complex lives".

Focus group discussions found women were "impatient for change", so there was "a more urgent need for results" in what they regarded as the priority areas. According to the report, they care about other people, such as their children, parents or neighbours, while men see things from their own perspective. "Politics is seen as a 'male' pursuit - impractical, intellectual," the report said. "It is seen as a gladiatorial game, not suited to women's personalities. Its career structure implies a single-minded focus that few women can apply. Hence, it has been seen as a male world with little real impact on women's lives."

Women want a different kind of politics in which politicians understand their "multi-tasking" and "work constructively and positively rather than being adversarial".

Ms Jowell agreed that the Government should own up to its mistakes. "We should always do that," she said. "The tradition of politics is gladiatorial, confrontational and highly aggressive. We know that turns women off; it turns men off too."

Yesterday, Mr Blair appeared to take the report's recommendations to heart when he admitted he had been wrong to oppose Rhodri Morgan's attempt to become First Secretary in the Welsh Assembly. "He's doing a very good job, he's exercised real leadership and I have to say I got that judgement wrong," he said.

Asked in a newspaper interview about criticism that he is a "control freak", Mr Blair said: "Essentially you have got to let go of it with devolution." He added: "You've got to exercise discretion. You've got to know the battles to fight and the battles not to fight."