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Last Updated: Monday, 15 August 2005, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
What Tory women want
By Christine McCarthy
BBC News politics reporter

Winning over female voters is one of the Holy Grails of modern politics.

Lady Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher won votes from both sexes

The Conservatives used to excel at it. In 1979, the year Britain's first women's prime minister Margaret Thatcher was elected - 47% of women voted Tory, compared with just 35% for Labour.

But now - despite the fears of Labour strategists ahead of polling day - the tables have been turned, with more women voters opting for Tony Blair than Michael Howard at this year's general election.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley even argued recently "if we had secured the same level of support among women as men, Labour would have lost their majority".

Another potential contender for the Tory leadership, Theresa May is also evangelical about getting more women into politics and moving way from the macho, "yah-boo" world of the Commons chamber.

Speaking earlier this month, she said: "We need more women to vote for us, but as things stand, the modern Labour Party is far better than we are at speaking the language of the woman voter."

Clinton

So should "female appeal" be a key factor in the contest to succeed Michael Howard?

And, if so, what attributes should the likely contenders possess?

We decided to ask the women of South West Bedfordshire Conservative Association, who like Conservatives everywhere have seen their share of pretenders to the crown in recent years - what they looked for in a leader.

WOMEN VOTERS
1979
Conservative 47%
Labour 35%
Liberal 15%
Other 3%
1992
Conservative 44%
Labour 34%
Lib Dem 18%
Other 4%
1997
Conservative: 32%
Labour 44%
Lib Dem 17% Other: 6%
2001
Conservative 33%
Labour 42%
Lib Dem 19%
Other: 6%
2005
Conservative 32%
Labour 38%
Lib Dem 23%
Other: 7%

Source: Nuffield General Election Studies

For Tina Wyles, it was the "Bill Clinton" factor. "He had charisma, he could communicate in a way that reached all people and he had the X-factor," she says.

"How else could he have survived as president and for a second term after the (Monica Lewinsky) scandal? Simply because people's perception of him did not change and they were able to forgive him."

Carole Hegley, a mother-of-two and long-time member of the South West Beds Conservative Association, believes her party ignores women's votes at its peril.

"I think women are the influencers, when you knock on doors when you're out campaigning you hear it yourself, they don't necessarily vote the same way as their husband and they can influence the young family members too."

'Media friendly'

Mrs Hegley says any new Tory leader will have to match up to Tony Blair's appeal among women.

"I don't like the man myself, but you have to pick up on his positive points - he has an air of compassion about him and I think that appeals to women more so than a harsh bulldog approach," she said.

Theresa May MP
Theresa May: The only female candidate in the running

Mrs Hegley says many of the women she comes across in business and social circles look for a charismatic leader and someone "media friendly".

"I think women like to be charmed more than directed and they like an air of persuasion. Men on the other hand are more persuaded by strength of character and a dominant authority, I think."

She believes her party ought to take the female viewpoint seriously and says any new leader has to appeal to both women and young voters.

"They need to have a sparkle in the voice and dynamic energy, definitely not a grey old man".

"I also think the tolerance level of politics for many women is low, they are much more matter of fact it's a case of 'do I like you or not'," she says.

Blair appeal

Pam Hay, a Conservative for nearly 50 years also acknowledged Tony Blair's appeal among women.

"I think he (Tony Blair) has lost his shine, but I can see his appeal," she said.

"Appearance, looks and how people come across is often what appeals to women, who I think sadly, are not discerning enough - it's too often the gift of the gab which wins and people do not look beyond that."

Mrs Hay, who has two grown-up sons, said she believes former Tory leader William Hague lost out to voters simply because of his Yorkshire accent and his "attitude".

"I think with women especially, first impressions count for a lot," she says. "Personally I look for someone with clear ideas of what they want to achieve, but probably a lot of women are swayed by looks."

Ann Sparrow, leader of South West Beds' Conservative Association, was happy to leave the outcome to the fates.

"Every good leader just appears to come out of the wood, in the same way that Tony Blair did, so I think watch this space," she said.


We asked what women voters look for in a political leader. The following comments reflect the balance of views received:

Honesty. Someone who appears to be interested in delivering a better world, not a better media profile for themselves, and a glittering political career.
Catherine, Cambridge

I think it is just the charisma of a leader really. I don't know if you can describe anyone on the world leader front as good looking. They are not the nicest looking people but they definitely have charisma.
Lara Gravenor, Johannesburg, South Africa

Basically women will vote (like men do) for the party with the best policies. It not necessarily the leader that counts, although as the head of the party they are best placed to express the party's policies, and doing this well can make all the difference when it comes to the votes. If you want women voters therefore then you need a leader who can make the party policies look like the best/only option.
Jenny Bell, Stoke-on-Trent

Why do you keep asking JUST women these questions? Why are you so prejudiced that you do not care about the views of men? Why do men and women have to pay the same licence fee when women get far more out of it? Why do men and women have to pay the same membership fee for Political parties when the parties are only interested in what women want?
Ian T, Cambridge

...The same as men voters?!!!!! Good grief - how insulting to think that we are in some special little box marked "Women Voters". We ALL care about clean hospitals, low taxes and discipline in schools!
Sally Roberts, London, UK

Women look for good looks and a 'compassionate' seeming leader who cares about issues like education, healthcare, etc.
Edward Kibirige, Nairobi, Kenya

Sincerity, compassion and competence. No Tory MP currently displays these virtues. All are mandatory to becoming a winning leader.
Helen, Solihull, UK

Why don't I ever see an article as seriously written as this one for men? What do men want in a politician?
JustinV, Oxford




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