Blair won't regain women's votes until he adopts a more civilised style of debate

He can go on popular programmes as often as likes and it won't make any difference; the whole exercise seems phoney
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The Independent Online

"He wants to be Mark Darcy, but he just can't help ending up Daniel Cleaver" - that's how one friend, a lifelong Labour activist who would like to be a parliamentary candidate, describes her disenchantment with Tony Blair. Her Bridget Jones analogy is less flippant than it sounds, cutting to the heart of a problem that the Prime Minister has created for himself: over the last eight years, we've realised that he isn't nearly as nice as he's cracked up to be.

"He wants to be Mark Darcy, but he just can't help ending up Daniel Cleaver" - that's how one friend, a lifelong Labour activist who would like to be a parliamentary candidate, describes her disenchantment with Tony Blair. Her Bridget Jones analogy is less flippant than it sounds, cutting to the heart of a problem that the Prime Minister has created for himself: over the last eight years, we've realised that he isn't nearly as nice as he's cracked up to be.

This isn't because women necessarily want nice politicians, although a lot of us would like to see a more civilised tone to political debate, but because that is how Blair presented himself to us in 1997. The Prime Minister's own preferred analogy is of a marriage that's gone stale, an image that hints, intentionally or otherwise, at a realisation that the problem is gender-specific; this may just turn out to be the general election at which Blair finds out how disappointed women voters are with Labour's record and his own political style in particular.

"He's like the bloke you fancy at the club, but when you take him home it's a terrible let-down", my friend explains.

It is not what Labour's election strategists want to hear, but the Prime Minister's repeated insistence that he is a decent bloke, someone we can trust - unlike other politicians, supposedly - has been blown apart by the Iraq war. Blair says he wants us to "move on" from Iraq, but for many women, who did not support the conflict in the first place or did so only reluctantly, it remains unfinished business. Blair's fine words about freedom and democracy sound hollow when women in Iraq are being terrorised into wearing the veil, and rape and violence against women are as rife as ever in Afghanistan.

The trust issue, or lack of it, is huge for women voters. There is a widespread sense that Blair simply does not understand what he did wrong, or how far our faith in him has been shaken by his refusal to apologise. He can go on popular TV programmes as often as likes - the so-called "masochism strategy" - and it won't make any difference; the whole exercise seems phoney, like a husband suddenly buying flowers when he realises his wife is about to walk out. Even viewers of daytime TV can tell when they are being patronised.

This government does not usually give the impression that it listens much to ordinary people, although it has always had a soft spot for celebrities - Bob Geldof as well as Jamie Oliver. This should not be a surprise, because the ranting ex-pop star shares a number of traits with the Prime Minister's closest associates, from the splenetic Alastair Campbell - who has been brought back to play a major role in Labour's election campaign - to the irascible Health Secretary, John Reid.

Blair's insistence that he is a nice guy has never sat easily with the kind of people he chooses to surround himself with, a disjunction that becomes even more apparent at election time. Nice guys don't characterise their opponents as petty criminals and pigs in election posters that may or may not be racist but are undeniably boorish.

So far, apart from a sudden burst of largesse towards schoolchildren, prompted by a TV chef, Labour's leaders have gone in for the most shameful kind of negative campaigning, trashing their opponents and turning off women voters in droves.

The Leader of the House, Peter Hain, did at least express regret for using the phrase "attack mongrel" in an interview, and has since tried to show some respect for Labour supporters who disagree with the Government's policies. But I don't think the Labour leadership has yet realised what a visceral reaction many women have to Campbell, Reid, Charles Clarke and John Prescott, all of whom display a pugilistic form of masculinity that seems reluctant to exit the studio until their opponent is stretched out on the floor.

Alan Milburn, Labour's election supremo, is so arrogant and inflexible that I have to leave the room when he comes on the Today programme.

In the last few days, as the phoney election period draws to an end, I've heard women express anger and distrust towards the Labour leadership and its negative campaigning over and over again. "I can't stand Blair," said one of the personal trainers at my gym, as soon as I mentioned the election. "I'm going to vote Labour, but I'd like Blair to know how much I loathe most of what he's done," declared another friend, who feels let down by the Prime Minister on a whole range of issues. She would like a box on the voting form that says "Labour - reluctantly", as well as one that reads "none of the above".

In her case, the Labour Party is lucky; she lives in a marginal seat, the sitting MP has just stood down, and voting Liberal Democrat might let the Tories in, so she will grit her teeth, like me, and vote for whichever Blair crony the party parachutes in.

Something similar is happening around the country in seats that have become vacant at the last moment, giving the Labour leadership a chance to demonstrate that it is not just Michael Howard who cares little about democratic procedures.

In the last few weeks, political discourse in this country has hit a new low, a situation that the Conservatives must take some responsibility for; their shameless targeting of vulnerable groups such as Gypsies and asylum-seekers may play well in the gutter press, but would have dire consequences if they were elected the next government.

But both main parties seem on the defensive, prowling round each other like big cats, endlessly seeking an opportunity to draw blood. The Labour leadership should be wary of using such tactics, which obscure their real achievements after eight years in power and risk turning large numbers of voters off politics altogether.

What underlies all this, I think, is a nervousness whose cause neither main party can publicly acknowledge. While Labour is generally more decent than the Conservatives on subjects such as race, the two parties are still fighting over the centre ground, and personal attacks serve to exaggerate the relatively small differences between them.

They also confirm that politics in this country remains a boys' game, played at a level of playground name-calling, an impression that will require a great deal more than the presence in Cabinet of the occasional younger woman, such as Ruth Kelly, to dispel.

Only days before an election is called, it may be too late to call for a spirit of generosity, a recognition of each other's fundamental decency, when politicians try to get our support. But a combination of Blair's personal arrogance and the macho style of his closest colleagues is in danger of losing Labour substantial numbers of votes.

If the Prime Minister refuses to tell the party's leading figures to behave like grown-ups, he shouldn't be surprised to find a lot of women turning to the Liberal Democrats - or staying at home.

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