Women voters want more than blandishments from Mr Blair to return to the Labour fold

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Tony Blair's so-called "strategy of masochism" was on full display yesterday when he submitted himself to questions from discontented women voters on live television. He assumed a low-key, long-suffering and determinedly modest demeanour. A St Sebastian placidly accepting the arrows, he refused to be riled. But to say that he answered their questions would be an exaggeration. For the most part, he did not: he defended himself as a beleaguered prime minister trying to do his best under adverse circumstances.

Tony Blair's so-called "strategy of masochism" was on full display yesterday when he submitted himself to questions from discontented women voters on live television. He assumed a low-key, long-suffering and determinedly modest demeanour. A St Sebastian placidly accepting the arrows, he refused to be riled. But to say that he answered their questions would be an exaggeration. For the most part, he did not: he defended himself as a beleaguered prime minister trying to do his best under adverse circumstances.

This does not make for satisfactory television or for satisfactory campaigning. No one has to tell Mr Blair that women are a difficult and dangerous constituency. Successive polls show that female voters, having flocked to support him eight years ago, are now flirting with his opponents, or threatening not to vote at all. If Mr Blair can find a way to woo a good proportion of them back, the chances of a solid Labour victory are enhanced. If not ...

This "if not" should be a matter of urgent concern to Labour campaign managers, not just because there has been such a decline in women voters' enthusiasm for Labour, but because none of the supposedly female-friendly initiatives taken recently appears to be having the slightest effect. As both yesterday's television encounter and a new ICM poll show, not one of the six areas covered by the Labour pledge card receives a positive response. In four of the six areas, including crime and national security, the response is strongly negative. Mr Blair's experience is respected, but personally he is neither liked nor trusted. And then there is the war.

Contrary to the view prevailing in Downing Street, the Iraq war is not a small, sectional concern peculiar to Islington intellectuals and their like. Women were always more hostile to the use of force in Iraq than men - but they do not appear to have softened their dissent with time. Nor is it now just the war and its unnecessary casualties that angers them, but the whole complex of decisions and presentational mechanisms that has accompanied it. The women questioning Mr Blair yesterday disliked the decision to go to war, but they also disliked the way Mr Blair appeared to change his reasons after the fact, and the way they felt they had been manipulated by the propagandists, with the Prime Minister in the lead.

It may be that women have less tolerance of jargon and euphemisms than men. They have less time to waste on such word-games and more first-hand experience of the gap between politicians' words and deeds. It is they, more often than the men, who attend school parents' evenings, take their children to the doctor, visit elderly parents in hospital. It may be this government's bad luck that it raised expectations in these areas of social policy so high and is now perceived to have fallen so short. Targets attained count for little when personal experience says something different.

This sharp decline in the women's vote, however, need not lose Labour the election, nor is it necessarily irretrievable. It need not be fatal because, for all Mr Blair's flaws, he is still more popular among women than either of the other two party leaders. If they want to catch the votes Mr Blair is losing, they will have to try harder. Mr Howard, for one, spent the weekend showing how not to do it. British politics may have become more presidential, but parading the family - complete with children and grandchildren - is best left for victory night. For a Conservative leader to suggest, as he does in a magazine interview today, that the abortion law needs tightening, will probably not broaden the Tories' appeal to women either.

The reason why the women's vote may not be irretrievable could boil down to Gordon Brown. Less discredited by Iraq than Mr Blair, the Chancellor gives Labour a second chance to court the women's vote through the image of a solid and trusty provider. Budget day is expected to mark the return of Mr Brown to the frontline of the political fray. We have no doubt that this will be a budget to win over women voters, as well as to win an election.

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