It is little wonder so many female voters are turned off by male-dominated party politics

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Polls suggest that Tony Blair is less popular with women voters than he used to be. According to one survey, only 36 per cent of women intend to vote for Labour at the next election, down from 44 per cent in 1997. But the other party leaders also have lower approval ratings from women than from men. Not surprisingly, therefore, the three main parties are going out of their way to target women in the run-up to the election. When Radio 4's
Woman's Hour clicked its fingers, the party leaders rushed on to its airwaves, and in doing so propelled some family-friendly polices higher up the agenda.

Polls suggest that Tony Blair is less popular with women voters than he used to be. According to one survey, only 36 per cent of women intend to vote for Labour at the next election, down from 44 per cent in 1997. But the other party leaders also have lower approval ratings from women than from men. Not surprisingly, therefore, the three main parties are going out of their way to target women in the run-up to the election. When Radio 4's Woman's Hour clicked its fingers, the party leaders rushed on to its airwaves, and in doing so propelled some family-friendly polices higher up the agenda.

This is good news, but addressing the concerns of women is not a straightforward exercise. Most policy areas do not relate uniquely to women. Women are as concerned as men about the state of the economy, the quality of public services and the level of taxation. But women, particularly those aged over 55, are more likely than men to be "undecided" or floating voters. And it is notable that it has been women who have publicly harangued Mr Blair over the years, whether members of the Women's Institute or in recent televised encounters over issues such as the closure of special needs schools and low wages for nurses.

There are good reasons for this. Surveys found evidence that women were more likely to be opposed to the misadventure in Iraq, and less convinced by Tony Blair's contorted defence of the invasion. And it is women who are more likely to come into direct contact with core public services such as schools and hospitals, and thus who tend to be more concerned by issues such as dirty hospitals and poor classroom discipline. They are more likely to see the gulf between the Government's rhetoric and the reality on the ground.

Yet on issues of obvious concern to women - the work-life balance - the Blair Government has an adequate record. This week's pledge to extend paid maternity leave from six to nine months as well as to grant mothers the option of splitting their leave with fathers, is not just a pre-election gimmick, but part of a pattern of policies implemented over the past few years, from childcare help to tax credits for mothers on low incomes, aimed at helping working parents. There is still some way to go on issues such as support for mothers who choose to stay at home and, especially, for carers, but the Government is heading in the right direction.

There are, however, other reasons for the alienation of some women voters. They are turned off by the displays of machismo and the adversarial shouting matches conducted by male politicians. Conversely, they respond more positively when female politicians (and a handful of male politicians) address them in ways that are less confrontational.

The early stages of Labour's pre-election campaign did little in stylistic terms to engage these disillusioned female voters. Mainly male ministers took part in poster launches that portrayed their political opponents in an absurdly unflattering light. The inclusion of more female ministers in subsequent photocalls and press conferences had an air of tokenistic desperation about it. And for all the patronising emphasis on the large number of female Labour MPs elected in 1997 - the so-called Blair Babes - it is still the men that run New Labour and its election campaign.

The Liberal Democrats compete with Labour in offering family-friendly policies, and in some ways go beyond what the Government is proposing. Charles Kennedy's principled opposition to the war, combined with his reasoned and measured approach to political debate, will attract some wavering female voters. The Conservatives, meanwhile, oppose many of the policies on the grounds that they damage businesses and the economy. They argue that it is in the interests of women for the Government to intervene less. This is a debate of substance and underlines the importance of the looming election.

But in terms of tone and style, the male-dominated party leaderships must tread carefully. There is no point in having a debate of substance if women are not listening.

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