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banner Tuesday, 3 October, 2000, 19:57 GMT 20:57 UK
Wooing women the Tory way
The Tories have identified an issue which is election critical.

Not the single currency, not fox hunting and not tax.

The issue is winning back the female vote.

For generations the female vote, by and large, kept the Tory party in power election after election until 1997 when it was mopped up by Tony Blair's new Labour Party.

The Tories have got to take it back to win the coming election but at the moment the party's commitment to women seems pitiful.

Speaking on the conference fringe, Tory women's spokesman Caroline Spelman made no bones about it.

The selection process has seen the party fail to select a single women candidate for any constituency in which a sitting Tory MP is stepping down, and which produced little more than a dozen women Tory MPs at the last election just is not working.

"The selection process has to undergo a thorough review - it starts this month," she said.

But unfortunately such was the urgency with which the party sees the representation of women even if any changes edging toward positive discrimination are made they would not come into force until the election after next.

The issue is particularly fraught for the Tories.

Women voters want women candidates

Monday saw it have the first conference debate on women's issues and the party's first manifesto on the subject has been published recently - both steps along the way to recognising the importance of women in politics but both way behind the times.

Earlier this week Lord Tebbit voiced the view that women were unsuited to politics - a remark which earned him the rebuke of Tory education spokeswoman Theresa May.

But the problem for the Tories is not whether Lord Tebbit's views resonate with the rest of the party but whether they confirm female floating voters' views of what the Tory party is like.

Picking up on polling done by the Fawcett Society, Ms Spellman told the 30 or so souls gathered on the party fringe in Bournemouth to discuss women's representation in politics that if "63% of all female voters say they want to see better female representation then we have commonality."

Adversarial model

She went on: "If we are serious about having politics for women then that will go someway to combating apathy.

"If we are serious about politics and making the world a better place then that is something we will have to do something about."

The adversarial Westminster model of politics was putting women off, she said. The female voter had little patience with political point scoring and the politics of egos.

It was a pity then that - as Matthew Taylor from the independent think-tank the IPPR pointed out - William Hague is often seen as being at his most effective when doing combat with Tony Blair at prime minister's questions.

The female dislike of "politics as a game" was then, said Mr Taylor "a specific problem for him".

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