John Rentoul: Warning – Women are people too

Party leaders are mistaken if they think that half the electorate is only concerned with family-friendly issues
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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown is so worried about Labour's failure to mobilise the men's vote that he has set up a special unit at Labour HQ and appointed Jon Cruddas as Minister for Men (unpaid), with special responsibility for taking the party's message to garages, betting shops and the edges of dance floors. He is worried that Labour's policies for lawnmowing credits, free TV licences for elderly football fans and the reduction of VAT on shaving cream are not getting across.

I may have got some of that wrong, of course. One bit that is definitely true, though, is that men were less likely to vote Labour than women at the last election. According to Ipsos-MORI, the male Labour vote was four percentage points lower than the female.

This is the context in which it was reported last week that the Labour Party's election strategy would focus on "middle-class mainstream mums". We report today on one of the epiphenomena of that strategy: a Labour policy to encourage flexible and part-time working and job-shares. It is technically gender neutral, but is more likely in practice to affect women and is being sold by Yvette Cooper, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, explicitly as female-friendly.

Most "middle-class mainstream mums", I imagine, would want to drive a BMW X5 over anyone who described them in such patronising terms. Some of them might also react rather badly to the assumption that some issues are "women's issues" and others, such as tax, defence and immigration, are not "men's issues", but just issues.

Nevertheless, there is an arms race developing for the so-called women's vote, which is regarded as a subset of the total vote rather than as complementary to the "men's vote".

Last week Britain was enjoined by David Cameron to "get ready" to see more of his wife. That was on a gardening programme, and we start to see more of her on the Trevor McDonald show tonight. These "soft" interviews – Gordon Brown started it with Piers Morgan last month – are often assumed to appeal more to women than to men. Actually, what is more important is that they reach an audience that is not particularly interested in politics.

It is a sexist assumption, too, that only women are interested in the party leaders' wives. Lots of people are interested in them, not because they are women, but because they tell us something about the person to whom they are married. One of the reasons, for example, why I think that Cameron might make a good prime minister is that he chose to marry Samantha.

She may be posh, but she seems to have a modern anti-Establishment streak. Not just because, as Francis Elliott and James Hanning revealed in their biography of her husband, she was banned from smoking her roll-ups in the Tory office when he stood unsuccessfully for Stafford in 1997.

I may be disappointed when we get to hear her tonight – although I wasn't offended, as some were, by her alleged Estuary accent in the preview clips. But I was disappointed when she put out a statement last week saying that she had never voted Labour, after Ed Vaizey, the Tory MP, suggested that she might have done so in the Blair landslide.

That was surely a tactical error: what could have been more Everywoman than letting people think that you might have voted Labour when "everyone did"? Even so, I understand that she did actually vote Green when she was a student in Bristol in 1992, which is some kind of evidence of normality. By putting Samantha on television, the Conservatives accept that her Bohemian past is a legitimate subject of inquiry; but that is an opportunity as much as a danger.

Equally, Sarah Brown's underpinning of her husband's remarkable comeback may appeal more to women, but it must have worked for men as well. Her introduction of Gordon at Labour's annual conference (twice) was a bit treacly for me (both times), but there can be no doubt that her use of Twitter to communicate with her 1.1 million followers on the internet is a huge Labour asset.

She is exploiting effectively a social technology that had only just been invented when Barack Obama ran for President. I don't know if more of her followers are women than men, but if her unique political communications operation is gender-biased it is not gender-exclusive.

The one thing that might really alienate female – or male – voters is the idea that they can be addressed as a gender. This is part of a bigger sexist conspiracy between the political parties and the media to pretend that the electorate can be segmented by sex. It is a conspiracy because we journalists are addicted to stereotypes, and the parties will use any device to get us to write about them.

And it is a pretence because all the evidence is that class and age are more powerful drivers of political choice than sex. There are differences between men and women in their voting behaviour, but they are small. In the 2001 election, for example, there was no significant difference. In 1992 and 1997, men were slightly more Labour than women – a tilt that was reversed at the last election.

The truth is that the big issues that are important in this election – taxes, public spending, jobs, schools and the NHS – matter just as much to women as to men. The alleged "women's issues" of childcare and flexible working may affect more women more directly in practice, but they matter to men, too.

There is limited evidence that these kinds of policies drive women as a group to vote more for one party than another. Just because some parts of the media foster sex stereotyping does not mean that the parties have to pander to it. My vote goes to the party that promotes flexible working as a policy for everyone.

Follow John Rentoul on Twitter www.twitter.com/johnrentoul

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