Belfast Telegraph

Cameron should look at the Big picture to woo women

By Mary Ann Sieghart

What a leader doesn't say is often more telling than what he does say. When Ed Miliband failed to turn on Tony Blair's booers last week, we learned that he wasn't prepared to stand up for Labour's most successful leader.

When David Cameron failed to turn on the sexist boors a couple of weeks before, we learned more than we wanted to about his attitude to women.

In response to a question from Tory MP Nadine Dorries, he began, "I know the Honourable Lady is extremely frustrated," at which point the Labour guffaws erupted.

Instead of berating the lads-mag louts, he chuckled: "I think I'm going to give up on this one." Dorries was left humiliated: not only was she demeaned by sexual innuendo, but her leader neither stood up for her nor answered her question.

It's good that Cameron apologised at the weekend both for that incident and for having told the Shadow Chief Secretary, Angela Eagle, to "Calm down, dear".

Channelling Michael Winner is never a good electoral ploy; when you look as if you are patronising 51% of your potential voters, it's political madness.

Image matters, whether it's Cameron's condescension, or the relative dearth of powerful women at the top. But it's a reflection of women's lives, too.

Analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows that in the Noughties, women were 40% more likely than men to fall down the earnings ladder. It doesn't help when the Government reduces childcare support. A couple with two young children paying £200 a week in childcare will now have to find another £1,000 a year out of their post-tax income.

No wonder a recent poll found that 41% of poor parents said they were considering giving up work.

The Government can't, for the moment, abandon its deficit-reduction strategy. But it could reverse the insane childcare cuts, which are pushing women out of jobs just when they should be working.

The Big Society gets a bad Press because ministers haven't properly explained it. Most voters think it's all about volunteering and get exhausted just thinking about it.

Most Big Society policies have nothing to do with volunteering; they're about taking power out of the hands of officials and giving it back to the citizens, or to charities that are more humane and less bureaucratic.

For instance, people are being given personal budgets to spend on whatever social care suits them. One man paid his aunt to give up her job and move in to look after him.

The result: he's happier and the state saves money because he doesn't have to go into a care home. Studies show that more than two-thirds of people with their own social-care budget say their quality of life has improved.

These are the policies that make a difference to women. Women live longer and are more likely to need social care; and middle-aged women are more likely to be looking after their elderly parents.

Extending personal budgets into other areas, such as long-term illness, would also be popular. I am amazed the Government has been so bad at selling the Big Society. The Localism Bill could have been the Big Society Bill. NHS reforms could have been a way of putting patients, and the GPs they trust, in charge of directing their own healthcare - a Big Society ideal.

Women are the biggest consumers of public services. They hate the inflexibility, the loss of dignity, the lack of voice and choice that they often encounter.

The Big Society has the power to change all that. If the Tories want to woo women back, they should put it into practice and trumpet it. That means all ministers - not just David Cameron.

It would be a lot more effective than holding a token reception for businesswomen at No 10.

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