The much-vaunted “focus on women’s issues” pro-mised for the election started promisingly, with the spotlight resting on Margaret Dixon’s shoulder and deficiencies in the National Health Service. As though she had not suffered enough from having had, so she said, an operation cancelled seven times, Mrs Dixon appeared in public with Michael Howard tenderly holding her hand. Howard looked awkward in this empathetic role – more like a taxidermist than a counsellor – but the experience paid off, at least for Dixon and her local hospital. Within a very short time, she had a successful operation and Warrington General Hospital, which had only four high-dependency beds, got funding of £3m for more. It was a good time to raise a grievance, but the Labour and Conservative policies on health were so similar that a real debate on this, as on so many other issues, never took off.
The next battle for the women’s vote was on unexpected ground: Turkey Twizzler wars. Jamie Oliver succeeded in persuading Labour to promise to try to raise the average spent on each school dinner to 50p for primary schools and 60p for secondaries. It then emerged that many schools were so firmly tied in to private contracts that this hope was pie in the sky.
Charles Kennedy, leader of the party with the most comprehensive package to win women’s votes, also took the extreme course of having a baby early in the campaign, but took a while to work out how the sticky bits on a nappy worked. He declared that he was “keeping the baby out of politics”, but later included young Donald in a Lib Dem election broadcast. What was kept out of politics, by all the parties, was any discussion of the crisis in maternity care.
By mid-April, women’s issues were being highlighted by Labour, which promised faster action on cervical smear tests. Vote Labour, and women would get the results of smears by trendy text message or e-mail within seven days instead of seven weeks, raising bizarre visions of how the news might be broken: “phn yr dr fst – nt gd nws – sorry bt that – Jn Reid”.
John Reid also revealed that he had been listening to women who have had to wait many weeks to see a breast-cancer specialist. In future, were a Labour government elected, they would wait no longer than a fortnight. And how long before that promise would be fulfilled?
Er . . . not until the year 2008.
At the same time, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown started to hang around the school gates, chasing yummy mummies. They released a glossy, supermarket-style magazine highlighting Labour’s achievements for children. Brown talked of Sure Start, the Child Trust Fund and nursery places; while Blair expressed sympathetic insight into the problems faced by “pres-sured mothers”.
So the election rolled on in the traditional way: across Britain, babies were kissed and women patronised. Not one of the main parties had a single firm proposal to help women secure earnings equal to those of men doing comparable work.
The Fawcett Society unkindly broke into the debate to point out that, in 300 of the 646 constituencies, all three main parties had selected a male candidate.
The Conservatives selected women to stand as candidates in 12 per cent of their 50 most winnable seats. Labour selected female candidates in 64 per cent of its 50 most winnable seats: even so, women were not entrusted with a key role at the party’s press conferences. Instead, a white bus full of female politicians slipped out from London each morning, avoiding the increasingly frustrated sketch-writers from the national newspapers, to talk to female voters face to face.
The worry that women kept voicing on the street was not related to baby bribes, supermarket-style glossy magazines, MRSA matrons, or gypsies. It centred on a bigger question – were other people’s children and partners sent to risk death in Iraq without good reason? Ann Toward, mother-of-three and widow of Guardsman Anthony Wakefield, who was fatally injured on patrol in Iraq on 1 May, said she thought his death was needless.
By the end of the campaign, the woman who was in the picture for this election was not Margaret Dixon. It was Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the highly principled and expert deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office who resigned on the eve of war, because she could no longer reconcile her conscience with her job. At no stage did she need a politician to hold her hand.