Les femmes

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Labour hasn't given working mothers what they really need
The Government's child-care policies are formulated by women who are out of touch with reality, argues Cristina Odone.
By Cristina Odone
Published: 6:34PM GMT 11 Mar 2010
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Young mothers are deserting both Labour and the Conservatives Photo: Getty
Picture Louise at seven on a weekdaymorning, a jam-smeared toddler at her feet, a yowling baby in her arms. The minute her partner comes in from his night shift, she's off, taking the four-year-old to the SureStart childcare centre. After dropping him off, which still upsets her because she hates handing him over to a succession of different carers, she'll go to her job as an office manager. Louise only works because otherwise she and herhusband wouldn't be entitled to the childcare tax credit, which can be claimed only by a couple who are both working at least 16 hours a week.
Now, imagine Louise's reaction as, out of the corner of her eye, in between wiping baby's nose and slipping on her Shoe Zone boots, she catches sight of Harriet Harman sitting on the sofa on breakfast television: glossy, articulate and immaculatelyturned-out, she is claiming to speak for "ordinary women". Can you blame Louise if she hurls one of those boots at the screen? Or, more crucially, if, at the general election, Louise decides to tell the Government what she thinks of it?
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Young mothers are fed up with being patronised and ignored, and are deserting both main parties –but in particular Labour. Geoff Dench, the noted sociologist, has analysed statistics from the British Social Attitudes Survey over the past 24 years, in a study for the Centre for Policy Studies. His findings will send a shiver of fear down the Labour Party's spine. Where, back in 1986 more than half the working-class mums who were looking after their children voted Labour, only 27 per cent didin 2008; only a quarter of working age women who stayed at home supported Labour in 2008, down from 48 per cent in 1986.
Dench's findings provide a context for those recent YouGov polls showing that 29 per cent of women today would vote Labour. This is not a typical reaction against whatever government is in power; this is a gradual but heartfelt rejection of Labour's policies. Little wonderthat Gordon Brown's election strategists are targeting "middle-class, mainstream mums".
But this is the party that came into power with the promise of putting women at the heart of its agenda. Under this Government. we have seen more women MPs, more maternity pay, more money spent on childcare: just what women want, surely?
Er, no. If Labour had paid attention to its own national, 1997-8consultation, "Listening to Women", it would have seen that getting mothers into full-time work, and their children parked in state-run care centres, was never a vote winner.
So if Labour was not "Listening to Women", to whom was it listening? The cosy careerists' club that for too long has monopolised the public debate on what women want. This tiny elite, devoted to their high-flying, remunerativecareers, are totally unrepresentative of the ordinary woman.
They are work-centred, while the overwhelming majority of women want part-time work to support their family. They earn enough to afford nannies and private nurseries, while the majority of women have to rely on the state for their childcare. They preach absolute autonomy and independence, while most women cherish interdependence within thecouple.
Because of their status, these women wield immense influence, and have been able to shape the Government's agenda. So we see Labour pumping billions of pounds of taxpayers' money into a childcare system that is unpopular with ordinary mothers; and setting up a tax system that penalises the stay-at-home mum – despite evidence that the majority of mothers of children under five want to...