Why Blair needs the female vote

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The Labour Party has been worried about the widening "gender gap" for more than a decade. More women than men voted for Margaret Thatcher throughout her time as prime minister, but it was not because she was a woman, it was because she was a Tory. The gender gap was still six points at the time of the 1992 election between John Major and Neil Kinnock: among men, the Tories had a 4-point lead, but among women, the lead was 10 percentage points, according to the opinion polling company MORI.

The most extraordinary fact is that, after Kinnock was replaced by John Smith, and he in turn by Tony Blair, and John Major plumbed all record depths of unpopularity, the gender gap is now virtually unchanged at 7 points. The tendency for men to be more pro-Labour is just as marked as it was four years ago. MORI's latest figures show that Labour's lead among men is 32 points, while that among women is 25 points.

Why is this gap so persistent? Some of it may be to do with Labour's "masculine" image - although new Labour is supposed to be less macho. But the truth is that the gap is a more complex phenomenon.

The group that was most pro-Labour in 1992 was young women. While men under 24 showed a 5-point Tory lead, female under-24s showed a 13-point Labour lead. They were the only subgroup divided by age and sex to put Labour ahead of the Tories. Older women, on the other hand, were overwhelmingly pro-Tory. Among women over 54, the Tories had a lead of 18 percentage points. The Tory lead among men hardly varied according to age.

What has happened to different age groups since? If anything, the gap between younger and older women has widened. MORI's latest figures show Blair's new Labour an astonishing 50 points ahead among women under 24, while Labour's lead is only 9 points among women over 54.

This is the real reason why Tessa Jowell has been sent in by Blair to court the WI vote: Labour's own research tells it that older women are most resistant to the lure of new Labour. It may be partly that older people generally are more reluctant to change their voting habits. But there is an underlying pattern of hostility to Labour among retired women that the party is attempting to address. There must be grounds for scepticism as to whether even Tony Blair can do much about that.