Parties have women on their mind

Lowering the 'Tampax tax' in last week's Budget was a sign that the campaign to win femalehearts - and votes - is under way

It didn't make the headlines, but arguably one of the most significant parts of last week's Budget was Gordon Brown's decision to cut VAT on tampons and sanitary towels.

The move was small in the wider scale of the Chancellor's financial statement but it spoke volumes to the 51 per cent of the population whose votes will be crucial in deciding the outcome of the next election.

The Tories, too, are well aware that in voting, as well as in everything else, women fiercely guard their prerogative to change their minds. This week, the Opposition will answer Mr Brown in a new Conservative policy document for women called Choices.

Tony Blair's great achievement in 1997 was to close the gender gap - the difference between the number of men voting Labour and the number of women doing so. He reduced the gap to just 2 per cent but must keep it shut in the run-up to the next election.

The gesture to reduce VAT on sanitary products from 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent from 1 January next year was both symbolic and sensible.

His announcements to boost health and education spending, to lift children out of poverty and to give financial support to mothers after the birth of a child or to help them back into work rolled out Labour's real commitment to women.

The Conservative Party is also planning to focus on issues which, like Labour, it believes women care about - the health service and education.

According to research on women's voting habits, the female voter is more likely to be a "floating" voter, responding more directly to the way things actually are than the way they are told they are.

Deborah Mattinson, founder of research organisation Opinion Leader Research, said: "They have less tribal instincts than men. They are not into the game of politics so they see no particular reason to be loyal to a party and are more likely to switch."

Women are also far more likely to take their children to school. Likewise it is mother, not father, who usually takes a child to casualty when it has injured itself. Women see first hand whether a government has kept its promises or not.

Ms Mattinson said: "Health and education are absolutely key here and Labour was elected in 1997 with a very clear mandate to fix it there. How women vote next year or the year after will be entirely dependent on how they are perceived to have fixed it. Women are hands on ... talking about it is not enough."

It is here that the Tories hope to capitalise. Theresa May, their spokesperson on women, said: "This is a government that talks a lot and doesn't do anything. They are doing their normal thing of worrying about how things are presented and there is a limited extent to which you can do that.

"So many promises were made, particularly in the health service, but what people see is that those promises are not being met - and women are the first to see the reality of that."

Both main parties have identified the same issues as key concerns for women. But there is a significant difference in the way they will make their pitch.

Labour is "gender specific", talking directly to women about policies designed specifically for them. The Tories favour telling women how their general policies affect them.

The same difference in approach is clear in Labour's desire to increase the number of women MPs, through positive discrimination if necessary, and the Tories' ambition to change the culture of local Conservative associations in the hope that it filters through.

The Minister for Women, Tessa Jowell, believes much of Labour's success came from making women feel "comfortable" with a new style of politics bolstered by a record number of women MPs - a feat the Tories acknowledge they must perform to regain the trust of those who defected.

"The reasons for our victory have got to continue to be the basis of our approach in Government and when it comes to fighting the next election," Ms Jowell said. "We understand the importance of a very direct appeal to women which recognises that many women feel terribly alienated by politics, its style and the issues which are discussed and reported in a political way. What is important is connecting issues in ways that women recognise have a direct and beneficial effect on their lives."

"It's about a style of politics as well as the policies themselves", Ms Mattinson confirmed, though the Tories fear there may be a "fine line" between patronising women through the pages of glossy magazines and talking to them in ways they understand.

But Ms Jowell insists: "You can't have presentation unless you have good policies to present and good, tangible achievements to present."

The parties are right to take women seriously: had history been reversed, women might have had the satisfaction of seeing men chained to the Downing Street railings. But their protests for equality would not have been heard by a Labour prime minister. Not until 1997 would Labour have been elected, if women alone could vote.

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