The invitation to the members of the Women's Institute in Woodford, Essex, was straightforward enough: come and join Tessa Jowell MP for lunch at Nan's Pantry, a mock-Tudor social centre in Ilford.
It met with a bemused reaction. "When I read out the invitation they just guffawed," says Marie Mumford, secretary of Woodford WI. " 'What about our nice Mr Arbuthnot,' they said. James Arbuthnot's our local Tory MP and they're all gooey-eyed over him. There are a lot of strong Conservatives in our group. Well, it's their husbands. And the bridge. The Conservative Women's Association still organises a bridge evening once a month and bridge is thought to be socially so much better than whist drives."
Since the "Listening to Women" tour kicked off in Gloucester last March, Tessa Jowell, the woman Tony Blair has earmarked to be his minister for women, has spent most Thursdays in community halls up and down the country having lunch with members of the Women's Institute, the Mothers' Union, the Soroptomists (business and professional women), the Catholic Mothers' Union and other non-political women's groups. In other words, she has been listening to the middle-aged women of middle Britain, traditionally assumed to be the bedrock of support for the Tory party, and exactly the sort of women Labour needs to woo if they are to win the next election.
One of the more striking facts to emerge from the 1992 election was how pro-Labour young women were and how anti-Labour older women were; nearly 50 per cent of women over 55 voted Conservative, while only 31 per cent voted Labour. The "Listening to Women" tour, which concludes tomorrow in Basildon, has not been a succession of political rallies, Labour insists, despite the presence of local Labour spokespersons and MPs alongside Tessa Jowell, and the "New Labour, New Britain, New Vision" booklets and Labour Party membership forms that have been given to the 60 or so women invited to each lunch.
"They are not recruitment drives," said Tessa Jowell adamantly. "I felt I didn't know enough about what mattered to the women whose support we need." So when Tony Blair promoted her from junior health minister to her present post-in-waiting last November, "I decided to find out. Then, make sure that their concerns infuse our policies in all key areas."
There are those, of course, who say the only thing Jowell can do is listen. It is convenient; it means not having to answer questions, particularly those tricky ones on the exact nature of Labour Party policy. "What's Labour going to do about pensions?" asked Dorothy, a member of Derby Business and Professional Women, at the lunch held in Ilkeston, a small Derbyshire market town. "Ooh," said Viv Palfreyman, chairperson and Soroptomist, "we're kicking off down a bit of a political line here", reminding her of Ground Rule Number One: "If you get political, I shall ask you to stop speaking." Five minutes later Jean, a school governor, piped up. "Will Labour give us money to run our after school clubs?" "I don't think we can answer that," snapped Viv.
And so the rhythm of this and other meetings was set. Personal thoughts on nursery education ("isn't two a bit young to start school?"), smear tests ("why do they stop at 65?"), mad killers on the street ("I don't feel safe"), needy mothers-in-law ("she's disabled, I work, I feel under pressure") and girl guide huts ("we used to meet in the school hall for free, but now we have to pay") were punctuated by the occasional volley of any direct political questions, the scrape of chairs as women headed to the buffet table for more vol-au-vents and the chink of china cups.
Politicians are not always comfortable when they are listening rather than talking so it was not surprising that many found the nettle hard to grasp. Helen Jackson, MP for Sheffield Hillsborough, who "listened" at the Derby meeting, admitted, "I found it really hard to just sit there and not saying anything. Normally, politicians are jostling each other to speak. Here we just nodded."
Nodding and looking concerned, it has to be said, is Tessa Jowell's forte. She is also "hands on", to the extent that, as Chief Officer for a Community Care project in Birmingham in the 1980s, she sweated all night on plastic incontinence sheets in a hostel. "Only three of the residents were incontinent, and yet they all slept on incontinence sheets," she said. "That's the sort of information nobody would tell you. You have to find out for yourself."
The Listening to Women tour was perhaps not quite as revelatory, but Tessa exuded sympathy and compassion. "She's lovely," said Sue from Derby Meals on Wheels, who voted for Edwina Currie in the last election, "I've seen her on TV - Breakfast Time, I think it was - but she's much more caring in real life. She looks a bit older, mind, but she's got children hasn't she?"
Jowell started her career as assistant director for Mind, aged 25, a post she held for 13 years. She has only been an MP since 1992. She is 48, has two children, Jessie, 15, Matthew, 12, has a soft voice, a Home Counties accent, wears designer suits, Gucci-style loafers, is small, unthreatening and perfectly embodies the New Labour, new niceness philosophy.
"She's not like your normal lady Labour MP," concluded Marjorie from the British Red Cross Society at the Ilford lunch, "you know, all strident and up for women's lib. She seems very ordinary." That may be her image but Jowell is as pro-equal opportunities as the next gender warrior. She supported all-women short lists, is fond of repeating that there are more Johns in Parliament than women MPs and should Labour win the next election, her task will be to get more jobs for the girls (which means less for the boys). But any talk of confrontation or of taking power from men would, you feel, be far too radical and so Tessa smiles and middle England feels safe.
If the 1992 election was disappointing, recent trends are encouraging for Labour. Support for the party among older women, according to a recent MORI poll, has improved (46 per cent of women over 55 said they would vote Labour, 37 per cent Tory). Blair's tough stance on law and order and his commitment to community and religion appear to have gone down well. So, what about Tory die-hards at the lunches? Was a polite smile, a pair of loafers and a promise to "give you feedback as to what we can do" enough to seduce them? "I'd vote for Tessa, but not Labour," said Mrs Mumford. "I can still remember those awful strikes. That was the only time I ever tried to dye anything. I got the machine out and the damn bedspread and we had a power cut."
Mary from the Townswomen's Guild, a lifelong Conservative, also thought Tessa was "very, very good", but "in my day we brought up our children. They were our responsibility. I've got four and their father and I made a great deal of sacrifices to educate them. Young women today expect the state to provide nurseries, child care, and Labour supports that. I mean, why bother to have children at all?"
And here, according to Geoff Dench, a sociologist and author of a study on Grey Power sponsored by the Rowntree Foundation, lies one of Labour's problems. "Tessa Jowell is trying to keep the confidence and support of younger women by reiterating its commitment to feminism and equal opportunities, while opening the door to older women, who are actively put off by such talk." In addition, he says, women are very divided, and not only by age.
Sure enough, while Tessa repeatedly talked of "unity", of how "the concerns of women up and down the country are the same", the women were busy taking potshots at each other. "That lady who said her daughter paid her childminder pounds 2.50 an hour," said Liz from Redbridge Respite Care, "I thought, God, slave labour." "To be honest," said another, "when I first arrived here, I thought I've got the wrong place. I said to Liz here, I feel distinctly under-dressed. The other women looked as though they were going to a wedding reception. And me in my jeans. The looks I got." Another muttered, "I couldn't say what I wanted to say because the young ones would have thought, Oh God, listen to that old biddy going on again."
Interestingly, not only is Mrs Mumford not going to vote Labour in the next election, she is not going to vote at all. "For the first time in my life I don't feel any party is worth a vote. I'm disgusted with them all. They're all such bloomin' hypocrites." Mary felt the same. "No political party has my approval any more and I feel sad about that because I think it's wrong not to vote."
Could it be that disillusionment, not the Tories, is going to be Tessa's biggest problem?
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