Two weeks ago I was sitting in a cosy front room in a Harlow semi, listening to women talking about how they voted in the last general election. One of them, Pauline, a 52-year-old receptionist and grandmother, said she had voted Labour for the first time in 20 years in 1997. She did so again in 2001, but won't be making the same mistake in 2005. "You'll laugh at this, but I really thought, 'This time it's different!' But in the end it wasn't - they turned out just the same as always . . ." Agreement echoed around the room. At the end of the focus group I asked how the rest of the fiftysomething group would be voting. Of eight previous Labour voters, only one said she would remain faithful this time.
At Opinion Leader Research, we conduct qualitative research ("depth" interviews, focus groups and workshops) several times a week, and have been monitoring the decline of the government's reputation since the high of 1997. While discontent has grown across the board since the new-Labour honeymoon era, it is women who judge most harshly, contrasting their current disillusion with their previous expectations. "I feel they've been quite dishonourable: all those broken election pledges. I thought they were going to be different, but now I worry that they're just like all the others."
So what did women buy into back in 1997? A conventional wisdom has grown up around the electoral success of new Labour. It is that to win elections you have to stifle radicalism; that being in touch with those vital "Middle England" voters is at odds with the needs of the Labour core vote; and that anything that challenges top-down thinking is somehow old-fashioned, certainly old Labour. Yet floating voters, and women in particular, were voting for something radically different in 1997. They wanted to see real change - and that didn't just mean significant improvements in hospitals, schools and policing, it meant something much more radical and much harder to achieve. The women we have spoken to told us they were voting for a different way of "doing politics" and for a different breed of politician.
They trusted new Labour to deliver for several reasons. Partly, it was the accurate reflection of their own priorities highlighted in the 1997 campaign: for example, smaller class sizes and shorter hospital waiting lists. ("I heard their promises on waiting lists and class sizes and thought - at last! Someone's listened to me!") It was partly also the campaign style: the language used (straight talking, jargon-free), the tone adopted (positive, forward-looking). "They talked our language. They seemed to really understand what we wanted." But most of all, the credibility derived from Tony Blair himself: the embodiment of new Labour's promise - a politician different from any politician they had seen before, a politician who was on their side. As one woman who voted Labour for the first time put it back then, "It's a fresh start for the whole country. We needed something different and he is different - a family man, someone like us. I think he's wonderful."
Now, that enthusiasm and excitement have been replaced by disillusionment and cynicism. Women feel "let down" by the party, and the leader, they thought would be so different.
The women in our focus groups talk angrily about "the same old politics" - politicians behaving as they always have ("He's just interested in making a name for himself abroad"), promising the earth but not delivering on health, education and crime ("My mother's operation has been cancelled twice due to bed shortages. I think it's disgusting!"), and playing the political game - such a turn-off to women voters. ("They're all feathering their own nests" . . . "It's all talk - they call it spin, don't they? They've got spin and nothing else.") The specifics, cited in focus group after focus group, are made more powerful in the absence of a new Labour "vision". ("When you really look at it, I don't know what they stand for any more.") These are not just the concerns and preoccupations of "Middle England" but are felt even more strongly by "core" voters in safe Labour seats, too.
The result is not only a sharp drop in party-political activism, but growing indications of a low turnout, especially in "safe" Labour seats. This is most notable among younger women - those most likely to vote Labour. In 2001, 41 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted. Today, 18 per cent say they will definitely do so. It is hard to envisage Labour losing, so great is the mountain for the opposition parties to climb. However, it is clear that women hold the key to it retaining seats in many marginals.
Labour's great triumph in 1997 was attracting 44 per cent of the female vote. Support from women is now in decline; almost two-thirds are unhappy with the government overall. Dissatisfaction rises with age and peaks at around 55-65. There are 8.8 million women over 55 - they represent a staggering one in five of all eligible voters. They are a group far more likely to turn out than younger women, and a recent Age Concern poll shows they are twice as likely as men to be undecided voters.
If younger, Labour-leaning women don't turn out, and older female voters switch, the result could be a haemorrhaging of Labour-held seats. Some pollsters believe that a hung parliament cannot be ruled out.
Labour may never be able to recapture the euphoria of 1997, but there is still a lot that the government can do now to re-engage women. However, it will need a major rethink: a big idea that can create a new relationship with voters.
For many women, the game of party politics is politics at its most irritating and disengaging. Reviewing how Westminster works and the role of MPs will be important. There are important messages for the election here, too. Labour's campaigns in 1997 and 2001 were almost entirely positive, while Campaign 2005 appears, so far, to be almost entirely negative, with personalised attacking ads, dirty tricks, macho swaggering and men-only photocalls.
Engaging women voters also means being in touch, and really understanding the issues that motivate them - health, education, crime, personal finances, childcare and caring. It means understanding how to campaign against a lack of faith. People don't trust politicians any more. Yet they do trust front-line providers, the people they know who work in health, education, the police. If policy change were developed in a more inclusive way, rather than top-down, then perhaps these key influencers might spread the word more positively on behalf of the services they provide.
Finally, being in touch is about being more representative, too. Many feminist campaigners have long believed that gender equality is vital in party politics. Now they have proof. Last year an Electoral Commission study, Gender and Political Participation, showed that where a constituency had a female MP, women would be significantly more likely to turn out (+4 per cent) and significantly more likely (+11 per cent) to agree with the statement: "Government benefits people like me." Conversely, in seats represented by a male candidate, female voters reported being less interested in the campaign. This is borne out anecdotally in focus groups, too, with women frequently more interested in female politicians, who are often discussed as more positive examples of an unpopular breed. "I loved Maggie - still think she's wonderful" . . . "Mo Mowlam was so brave. And she sorted Northern Ireland out for us" . . . "I've always liked Harriet Harman. She's a mum and she knows what it's like."
This has important implications for campaigning. Of course it is about having more female MPs, but visibility is everything. The mantra of "a woman on every platform" that dominated the Eighties seems to have been forgotten. I would argue that putting women where they can be seen - prominently campaigning to win back wavering women voters - would be a huge leap forward. Being truly representative shows a genuine commitment to, and understanding of, women voters. The absence of this strategy from the 2005 election campaign will speak volumes.
Deborah Mattinson is founder of Opinion Leader Research