Gordon Brown wooed female voters yesterday by promising a new legal right for mothers to choose where they have their babies, including home births for those who want them.
The Prime Minister previewed a Government plan to improve maternity services to be published tomorrow during an online chat on the Netmums website. Women could hold the key to the general election, as many have moved away from Labour since 1997, and the party has identified 53 seats where mothers could make all the difference.
Mr Brown told Netmums members the Government would provide a hospital bed for new fathers so they could stay overnight after their babies are born. He also promised an extra 4,000 midwives by 2012. "Our maternity services have got better over the last 10 years, but sometimes I think we haven't done enough to make sure they provide a really personal service for mums and dads," he said.
If mothers were denied the proposed "entitlement" to have their baby where they want, they could be allowed to go private with the cost met by the NHS. No price tag was announced, but Labour said it would implement the plan "as quickly as possible" after the election.
The Mother's Day web chat was part of Mr Brown's election strategy of talking directly to as many people as possible without having his message filtered by an often hostile media.
Earlier, he faced some searching questions when he came face-to-face with 16 undecided voters in the marginal seat of Stourbridge in the West Midlands, where Labour has a majority of just 407. The debate was staged by the BBC's Politics Show.
Aides denied the Prime Minister was repeating the "masochism strategy" used by Tony Blair at the 2005 election to allow voters to vent their anger over the Iraq war. "Gordon comes over well talking to ordinary people," one said.
But the strategy has risks. Saturday's audience included Ann Probyn, whose soldier son Daniel was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2007. She asked Mr Brown pointedly: "Would you like your son to go out on night patrol with no equipment?"
One disaffected Labour voter compared Mr Brown to James Callaghan, who also became Prime Minister in mid-term, dithered about calling an election and then lost power, while another told him his "performance" at the Iraq inquiry "deserved an Oscar". He also faced searching questions about NHS bureaucracy, jobs and adult education. But his questioners were mostly respectful and his answers calm.