Is there any such thing as the women's vote?

Politicians address female voters as exotic, mysterious beings whose interests start and end with he

There isn't a politician standing who would deny that there is a crisis in the relationship between women and Westminster. When I say "relationship", I mean "the way in which two or more concepts or people are related". I categorically do not mean that women see their voting allegiances as some nebulous metaphorical love affair, which daft and bizarre idea currently permeates all discussion of the subject.

Voting projections suggest that the problem is most serious for the Labour Party, which in 1997 commanded the support of 44 per cent of women. This time around, it is anticipated that the figure will drop to 36 per cent. However, according to a 2004 poll by the Fawcett Society, female support for the Tories has also fallen off - since 1945, the Conservatives have enjoyed consistently greater approval among women than men. In the 2001 election, the gap was narrow - 33 per cent of women, against 32 per cent of men. By last year, only 28 per cent of women were planning to vote for them (compared to 31 per cent of men).

Some, but not the majority, of these women are swinging towards the Liberal Democrats; the rest, particularly those in the 18-24 female bracket, are simply dropping off the political radar. In 2001, only just over a third of women under 24 turned out to vote, the greatest abstention of any section of the demographic. It would be a mistake, however, to target them too exclusively with game MP cameos on youth television shows - women over the age of 55, although unlikely to abstain, score highest on disappointment (64 per cent) with the current government, and constitute one-fifth of the electorate. Furthermore, women have usually been the undecided gender when it comes to elections.

You can take this as the result of floppy, changeable feminine minds, or as a sign that women have a keener analytical sense, and like to read manifestos rather than vote according to habit and tradition. Regardless, we are the Ohio of the impending election, the sexual swing state whose support would not simply make all the difference, but is also flexible enough to be worth pitching for. The question is, how do you pitch for it? The current, cross-party fixation with maternity leave and the under-fives is certainly revealing (if only for its insight into the political imagination - "women . . . wombs . . . babies!") but is not going to swing it.

Representation has always been a problem, and remains so, Blair's Babes notwithstanding. Labour has 95 women out of 409 members of parliament - 23 per cent of its total. The Tories have 14 women MPs, which, even given their meagre ranks, still amounts to a ludicrous 9 per cent of their total. The Lib Dems have a scarcely less laughable 11 per cent - six female members in all. The current figures on how this influences female voting habits (again, from research conducted by the Fawcett Society) show that where a party fields a female candidate, the female turnout increases by four points, while male turnout remains unchanged. So, from a purely practical point of view, the party that introduces all-female shortlists would register a substantial increase in support, but no party pledges to do so. The experience of the Welsh Assembly - the only body in the world with equal numbers of men and women - shows that positive discrimination is the surest and fastest way towards gender parity.

But how great a problem is the overwhelmingly masculine nature of Westminster? Is it really "masculine language" (cited by the Labour MPs Tessa Jowell and Estelle Morris) that alienates female voters? Is it the implication that women are simply not taken seriously enough, by any of the parties, to warrant inclusion as able and rational minds? Is it the absurd misconstruction of women's views that proceeds from representation by people who still see us as basically alien? Is it all of the above, or, conversely, does under-representation even make it into the top ten of women's disenchantments?

The so-called masculine culture of Westminster takes many forms. Respondents to a poll for Radio 4's Woman's Hour, about the falling popularity of the Labour government, focused on the former No 10 spin-doctor Alastair Campbell and his bully-boy swearing capers. Tessa Jowell opined recently that "we could do without the militaristic language about front lines and so on". Now, while both fall broadly under the heading "macho", these are two very different examples: the first is the arrogant preening of a government with too large a majority; the second, a means of rhetorical expression that could never upset any but the most fragile mind. Likewise, the debate about the hours of parliament conflates two wholly discrete ideas. Those who maintain that the late nights make it hard for women to take jobs as MPs have a legitimate, practical objection to a custom whose result can only be the under-representation of women. On the other hand, those who object on the basis that staying up late is too "macho", in the manner of a stag night, paint women as weak, feeble Fifties creatures who can't bear all the cigar smoke.

We need to tread carefully in this debate. If we allow arguments about the exclusion of women from political life to be co-opted by people simply saying how silly boys are, we risk solidifying this idea of innate gender differences - a notion which, however much it appears to give credit to women for their good sense and communication skills, will ultimately serve us badly.

At least recognising that 18 per cent of women MPs overall is a pitifully small proportion, all three main parties are eager that their prize females enjoy a very high profile. Nearly three-quarters of all Tory female MPs are either shadow ministers or in the shadow cabinet (though it would be interesting to see how this would change if the party were actually elected). In the Labour Party, Ruth Kelly seems to be doing almost all jobs, so long as they involve children, health, caring or, ideally, the caring-for of unhealthy children. There are two insulting assumptions at play here. The first is that certain jobs are "women's jobs". Whenever there is any announcement concerning the family, a woman is fielded; it would be unthinkable to have a minister for women who was actually a man. This is rooted in the idea that matters of policy concerning women can be addressed only by people who have a born understanding of what it is to be a woman. But what issues are actually specific to women? Childcare is not (fewer than a third of UK households contain anyone under the age of 18 and whatever crises occur in the state of marriage, most marriages also contain men). And given that the most a government can do for a family amounts to a financial package, it is unlikely that measures aimed at the family would have an impact solely upon the woman of the household. Indeed, probably the only wholly female-specific issue facing us is equal pay, which could best be ensured by changing the legislation to demand payroll transparency from companies. None of the parties, incidentally, is promising this, but the point is, why ever would it need a woman to say it?

Ironically, it was Margaret Thatcher (never big on female representation) who voiced the thinking behind this practice: "The women of this country have never had a prime minister who knew the things they know, never, never. And the things that we know are very different from what men know." This is, of course, absolute nonsense. If we allow ourselves to be characterised thus, we abnegate our right to be treated as rational beings. Furthermore, if, as voters, we are seen as people who need to be able to "identify" with our representatives on some emotional level, then MPs who share our sexual organs but do not, perhaps, share our class or accent will be sidelined, as evinced by the recent background briefing at which a high-ranking Labour minister said that Patricia Hodge et al were to be kept in the closet for the campaign, because they were too posh.

Interestingly, the women in parliament routinely collude with this idea: that we are different in the way we think - more emotional, less rational. Eleanor Laing, the shadow minister for women, discussing why women might have fallen out with Tony Blair, said: "Women are more in-tuitive; they know instinctively when someone's lying." I would like to see the research on that. Gwyneth Dunwoody, the longest-serving female MP, who witnessed the crusades of feminism and should know better, said: "Women are interested in families. Men are interested in things - like 'Where can I park?'." None of the surveys on the subject bears this out. An iVillage internet poll showed that 63 per cent of women with an adverse reaction to Blair's government cited the war against Iraq as their central objection.

A random (statistically flaky) little poll that I myself conducted yielded the same results. Tibbs Jenkins, 21, rejected the idea that macho language put her off; rejected the idea that maternity leave was a vote-swinging issue for women; concluded, "I have a general dislike of Tony Blair because he thinks he can woo the young vote by going on Top of the Pops and treating us like we're really stupid. But mainly, I was against the war in Iraq." Nat Foster, 31, also dislikes Blair on a personal level. "I don't like his style of moral politics. I find the religious side of him nauseating." She worries about how right-wing the language of politics has become, on everything from immigration to civil liberties. But, again, "Iraq is the major issue with me. You almost don't want him to get away with that."

To listen to politicians, you'd think that all women were interested in was breastfeeding and how clean hospitals were. You'd think that most carers for the ill and elderly were women, which is true, but you would also be forgetting that there are two sides to the carer relationship (the cared-for also have votes, and views, and are sometimes men). You'd think we were too delicate for robust argument. Yet, listening to women, you hear very little about cleanliness, and much more about foreign policy and the growing conservatism of triangulated politics.

Politicians are not alone in their faulty characterisation of female nature. Commentators and pollsters alike are guilty of mediating our opinions through their sexuality, if only metaphorically. Katherine Rake, writing for Prospect magazine last year, said: "It may be no coincidence that the love affair between Labour and women is on the rocks now, seven years after Blair took office. As all self-help guides tell you, getting over the seven-year itch is a critical test of any relationship." Deborah Mattinson, analysing research conducted for the Today programme, likened female voters to "betrayed lovers". Would anybody ever seriously contend that male voting habits could be ascribed to something as random and unconsidered as a "seven-year itch"? Would anybody account for their preferences by citing their sexual and/or emotional feelings for the candidate? These themes surface repeatedly - wherever there is a choice between analy-sing female voting patterns as rational choices and ascribing them to female sexuality, reproductive function or nurturing natures, people choose the second.

It cannot be denied (much as I would like to deny it) that gender plays a part in political response. More women than men were against the war in Iraq; more women than men "don't trust Blair personally"; women are less willing than men to forget about the war without an explicit apology; women's voting is affected by the gender of the candidate, while men's isn't. But let's not address these issues with crude, dated, unfalsifiable assumptions about the female character - that we don't like nasty bombs, that we do like babies, that we don't like macho talk, that Blair reminds us of a bad boyfriend we had once. Rather, just imagine, as a starting point, that we approach politics rationally.

If Westminster is overwhelmingly male, that is a problem, because it is bald under-representation, and nothing to do with men caterwauling at one another. If no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, then that war, by its own terms, was unjustified, regardless of whether our husbands ever cheated on us. If we do not trust Blair, it is not because we "instinctively know" he lies; it is because so much of what he has said, as a matter of public record, has turned out not to be true. By addressing females as a rather exotic, mysterious group whose set of interests can be mapped from the nurturing properties of their gender, politicians alienate women much more effectively than if they were to forget altogether that we are women.