Do women deserve the vote ?

The female vote has kept the Conservatives in office. Can Tony Blair expect a change next time?

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Women are to blame. They are like turkeys voting for Christmas: when they get into the polling booth they lose their heads. It is not at all clear that the suffragettes did Britain much good, for if they had not chained themselves to the railings we would have been spared the past 17 years of Tory government. If women never had the vote, there would have been no Conservative government since the war. (Not altogether a good idea either, perhaps).

Why is the polling image of British women something akin to Hyacinth Bucket? Analysing the 1992 election, MORI says the Conservatives had a 7 per cent lead among women, and that gender gap has stayed remarkably static since the Second World War. New Labour puts its faith in a new appeal to women voters: Blair, after all, is not laddish like Kinnock. But MORI say they see no sign of any significant shift: an aggregate of nine polls in the past three months still shows the gender gap at 7 per cent.

How should Labour politicians seduce women? Evidence from focus groups and polls is glum news. Women are not interested and know even less about politics. They hate arguments. They are less likely to remember what a politician said on television five minutes afterwards. They hate old Labour's cloth-cap image because it is not aspirational enough. They hate jargon and statistics but like to be talked to gently in parables that reflect their own lives. They don't like risks - and a change of government is a risk.

Politicians have to be polite about the voters, but the rest of us don't. What a dismal portrait of womanhood. Stupid, insular, selfish - nature's conservatives - is that it? I have to admit that this is not altogether news to those who have ever tried to mobilise women. In the heady days of women's liberation, the idea that we were going to mould women into a revolutionary cadre was always comical. Women are conservative with an infuriating tendency to be their own worst enemies (not all women, of course). They may be very good grumblers - they have plenty to grumble about - but grumbling is not a revolution.

Tessa Jowell, until recently Labour's Minister for Women - now promoted to something less depressing - has been on a nationwide tea-crawl around the Women's Institutes, Townswomen's Guilds and their ilk. She has been, she says, "Listening to women" - an old politician's trick when you desperately want to win votes, but reckon you are probably on a hiding to nothing if you open your mouth.

She listened to women complaining bitterly at their multiple burdens - struggling to care for children and old people while working as well. "They wanted fathers to do more, but they didn't expect the culture to change." She found women full of fear of society falling apart, alarmed at what they saw as a collapsing social order with crime and paedophilia lurking on every street corner. The world was changing too fast and for the worse. Insecurity was everywhere.

Labour hope they can turn the blame for all that onto the Tories - and Tessa Jowell did find evidence that these women did partly blame a decline in community, in schools and the NHS on the Tories. But it still sounds instinctively conservative - a view of the world where change is dangerous and Labour may look like the devil you don't know.

Feminists smugly extol women's infinite superiority: mothers are best, men behave badly. Men are selfish, belligerent, sports-fixated emotional zeros who don't have real friends and don't know they are born. Matriarchy, says the myth, would mean peace on earth and bonding with nature. But on this evidence women can be every bit as awful as men - in their own way.

There are, however, glimmers of hope on the horizon for Labour. Young women aged 18-34 are more likely to vote Labour than young men. But once they reach the 35-55 age group, they become three per cent less likely to vote Labour. Among over-55s, the gender gap yawns into a chasm and 22 per cent more older women vote Conservative.

The great question for Labour's future is this: are young women a new breed who will remain more pro-Labour as they grow older? Or will they turn Conservative, like their mothers and grandmothers before them? Naturally Labour believes that young women are different. Unlike their mothers, they are not frightened of Labour as they cannot remember the last Labour government. The winter of discontent is all Shakespeare to them. Over- mighty trade unions bearing down on a threatened democracy is about as scary to them as the memory of dinosaurs. They will, Labour says, stay Labour as they grow older.

Another straw in the wind: a recent Opinion Research Business poll revealed that one third of 35-44 year old women who voted Conservative last time do not intend to do so this time (though they are still dithering). New polling evidence from the Fawcett Society, to be published next Monday, will suggest that the gender gap is the widest among the lowest social groups - with many more DE women voting Conservative than DE men. AB women and men vote much the same.

However, Labour might draw most hope from across the Atlantic, where women have become markedly more likely to vote Democrat. As the US election gets into its final stretch Bill Clinton is leading among women voters by a spectacular margin. If he wins, it will be because of women, amongst whom he is ahead by 16 per cent, while Dole leads by 6 per cent among male voters.

It was not always so. In the 1950s American women voted as their husbands or fathers told them. That began to change in the 1960s and 70s. Since 1990 the gap has widened sharply. A survey last year found that two thirds of women voted differently from their husbands. Many men don't know that - half of them thought their wives voted as they did. Over the years similar surveys in Britain found men assuming their wives voted with them, but in the secrecy of the polling booth more women were sneaking off to vote Tory. The treacherous women's vote may explain why so many voters lie to pollsters.

When women voters stayed home in the 1994 US Congressional elections, the Republicans swept in. But women are rallying to Clinton again because of his pro-abortion policy, his brave stand on gun and tobacco controls and women voters like Hillary Clinton. In America, a powerful Democratic women's organisation has been urging women to get out there and vote, with the rousing slogan, "When Women Vote, Women Win!"

In Britain, however, although more women bother to vote than men, the opposite has been true until now. When women vote, women lose: they vote Tory although Labour has always had apparently a more pro-women platform, from equal opportunities to welfare and a minimum wage. But are British women voters about to follow their American sisters, and for the first time march to the left?

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