The best that they can do?<br />

With much fanfare, the main parties are presenting their policies for women. Sandra Barwick takes a

It will soon be 100 years since Emmeline Pankhurst was forced to plead with Keir Hardie to give up a place on the Private Members' Ballot to a bill for women's emancipation. Today, the political parties are on their knees to - of all women - that most invisible and unwooed sector, the over-55s, whose numbers and ingrained habit of voting have made them hugely desirable. At the top of this band are many women who worked in fields and factories through the Second World War and then had to surrender both jobs and independence in the aftermath of the war - many of whom are now low in pension provision as a result. A full two-thirds of the 8.8 million women who are aged 55 and above intend to vote, and one in every five of them is, from a politician's point of view, deliciously undecided.

Michael Howard, so far, may be offering nothing on equal pay to help the young woman who, five years out of university, sees her male peers already earning 15 per cent more. But his move towards the older woman has been as predatory as anything witnessed on an Eastbourne dance floor. Conservatives think they can target the older woman precisely, they know so many. Put 5,000 extra police officers on the streets per year, crack down on minor disorder such as the trashing of cherished Fiat Pandas, build jails to create 20,000 additional prison places, end early release, expel school-age yobs without right to appeal, get tougher on asylum-seekers: this is background music intended to play to older, Conservative-minded women.

But the older female vote cannot be easily stereotyped. A poll for the Fawcett Society last year - broadly followed in the chart on the right - showed that second highest among women's priorities was not some domestic issue, but foreign affairs. A woman of 60 was in her twenties in the Beatles years: she may be spending her retirement smoking dope and demonstrating against US military might. The vastly different generations of older women are not united, like some Greek chorus of crones, by the lament that children these days lack discipline but by the plight of living on a fixed income. Roughly 60 per cent of women over the age of 75 live alone. They can spare about £20 a week for food. Giving matrons more power over the use of scouring powder in hospitals, a policy Labour also supports, buys not one more can of fish.

Labour has concentrated on younger female voters, among whom are its strongest supporters, with a plethora of measures, including childcare packages and the main promise at this election of an extra three months' paid maternity leave - up from six months to nine - by April 2007. The Conservatives have belatedly joined in with their own, highly derivative childcare and maternity package.

Yet younger women are much less likely to vote than their mothers and grandmothers. And in office, until Gordon Brown's grey give-away budget, Labour has given older women lower priority, despite introducing pension credit, complete with an 18-page form and fairy-tale assumptions on interest rates. Brown's one-year £200 grant towards council tax now battles it out with the Conservatives' more generous offer of 50 per cent off for most over-65 households and the Liberal Democrats' local income tax, which would deliver most pensioners from this burden completely. Some Lib Dem policies are, at least at first glance, highly attractive to women. It remains doubtful, however, whether many voters could name even one Lib Dem policy.

Care is overwhelmingly a female issue: among the over-85s, twice as many women as men are in care homes. The Lib Dems, unconstrained by the realities of government, offer free personal care, which already exists in Scotland, Labour's power base. The Conservatives propose that the state pick up the bill for residential care after three years of individual private funding (during which time, at a rough estimate, between £40,000 and £60,000 of each person's capital will have vanished). This would disproportionately help the wealthy, but it will also appeal to many Middle England grandmothers who would like to leave something to their grandchildren, burdened with debt.

The plight of those 5.6 million carers looking after relatives (most of such carers, though not all, are women) is of even greater electoral significance. The Equal Opportunities Commission has been pressing for what is in effect a citizens' pension - "a universal state pension, targeted so that it would lift carers out of poverty and beyond".

The Lib Dems are committed to the citizens' pension in the long term, and in the short term are offering to apply it to the over-75s, paying the same income to women with few National Insurance contributions as to men with a full record. The Conservatives and Labour have promised to examine the lot of female carers on pensions, but no firm policies have yet emerged. Pension provision for carers might be likely to sway the vote of Sandwich Woman, as she is patronisingly called. Also of concern to her are university fees for her children - Tory and Lib Dem proposals on this will be scrutinised carefully - and that if she is working part-time because of her responsibilities to the older and younger generations she is likely to be earning on average £5.10 less an hour than her male counterpart.

Michael Howard is silent on issues of fairness at work. The Lib Dems are offering a new act. The best that Labour can offer is that the Women and Work Commission will make recommendations on the pay gap this autumn. To which Sandwich Woman, her mother and her daughters can only ask, as they must of the sudden general focus on their concerns: "How come it took you so long?"

Click here for the New Stateswoman Guide: the pledges and the verdict (PDF) - www.newstatesman.com/nswomanguide