New Labour, new lads

Read his lips. Women have little place in Tony Blair's language
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Last week I said that Tony Blair had women problems that needed more than a quick makeover to be resolved. He and his team need to listen to women as well as talk at them. They also need to listen to themselves. Actions may speak louder than words but words are all a politician like Blair has until he gets into power, so he should choose them carefully.

Clearly all politicians think about women if they are addressing what are obviously "women's events", but when called upon to speak to the public at large, do they bother to think about the language and imagery that they use? Who have they in mind when they are penning their speeches? How conscious are they of the need to address all of the population? Do they ever wonder why so many women feel that politics isn't "about them", that it is an irrelevance full of macho game-playing?

For those unaware of this bias, Shelagh Diplock of the Fawcett Society has done something very simple and very effective. She has analysed the three keynote speeches from this year's party conferences for their gender balance. These speeches are written under great pressure, but they are approved by aides and leaders before being presented.

We know that Paddy Ashdown was lobbied at the Liberal Democrats conference in an effort to persuade him to address women's concerns in his speech. The result of Diplock's analysis does not bode well for Blair and all those apologists who tell us that new Labour is doing enough to impress female voters.

The Fawcett Society has been campaigning for equality between women and men since 1866. Its report looks at the use of specifically gendered words such as father, hero, serviceman, businessman, mother, suffragette, widow, sportswomen. It also analyses the number of references to named male and female individuals. Paddy Ashdown used 30 words that referred specifically to men and 32 to women. He named 11 men, from Adolf Hitler to Brian Mawhinney, and five women. John Major used 52 words that referred to men and 22 to women. He named 14 men and three women. Tony Blair comes off worst. He used 74 words that refer specifically to men and only eight that refer to women. He named 22 men - John Smith, Neil Kinnock, John Prescott, Gordon Brown, David Blunkett, Jack Straw, Chris Smith, Robin Cook, John Major, Michael Heseltine, Joseph Stalin, Kim Il Sung, Neil Hamilton, Ken Clarke, Matthew Harding, Dennis Stevenson, Bob Hughes, Nelson Mandela, Clement Attlee, Alan Howarth, William Wilberforce and Adolf Hitler. He chose to name just three women - Aung San Suu Kyi, Joan Lestor and Glenys Kinnock.

Blair started his speech with references to the millennium, to new technology and the "marvels of science" outlining a new "age of achievement" for all. Yet the anecdotes and references were largely about men - the man cleaning his Sierra, the aspiration of miners and their sons, a JCB excavator plant with a male boss and an engineering firm.

In the final images of his speech he attempted to link new Labour with the broad sweep of human history. He mentioned the Old Testament prophets, Wilberforce, the trade union movement, Jack Jones fighting in the Spanish Civil War, the defeat of Hitler and the post-war building of the welfare state.

No women were mentioned - are there no women worth mentioning? - and he emphasised the outstanding British quality of "courage" and "physical bravery". He ends with a modified chant from the terraces - "Labour's coming home" to encourage us to identify with his project.

It is not the case, of course, that women cannot like football or indeed cannot be moved by a narrative of heroic struggle. But the huge problem of our distrust of politicians is reflected in the large numbers of men and women who won't even bother to vote. If we do not see our own lives reflected in the words of politicians, every pronouncement becomes increasingly meaningless. If they can't talk the talk, how can we be expected to believe that they will walk the walk.

It is a poor state of affairs when Blair appears to be more gender-blind in this respect than Major or Ashdown, who was making a deliberate effort to speak to women despite playing up his soldier image.

Blair's gender-blindness may be the result of immense strain but it is at times of stress that unconscious assumptions come to the surface. The assumption that male members of the shadow cabinet are more important than female, that everyone shared in Euro 96 fever, that he does not have to come up with examples and anecdotes that illustrate female as well as male experience, means that he is walking straight into a blind spot that is proving as slippery as it is dangerous. If we are to be included rather than excluded then, instead of watching so much football, he and his "team-mates" might start watching their language.