The Times

June 11 2000

Do they care that women are unhappy at work?

Melanie Phillips
The Times

When the emperor is revealed to have no clothes, the only people who are shocked are likely to be the emperor himself and his court of flatterers and hangers-on. The watching populace may have already sussed the naked reality perfectly well for themselves.

Such a survey leaves the government looking pretty silly. It is using stick and carrot to propel women into jobs on the basis that women want to work even if they are mothers. The only things preventing them from doing so, it claims, are lack of affordable childcare, male chauvinism and long working hours.

Now this survey makes clear that women want no such thing. Yet this isn't the first sign that the government has got it wrong. The Women's Unit last year conducted a "Listening to Women" exercise which, to its extreme shock, delivered a resounding raspberry. Women were furious that the government was devaluing motherhood and pushing them into work. This was hardly surprising since, if they have young children, most women want to be at home with them, getting a part-time job to fit in with school hours when the children are older.

That listening exercise threw ministers into disarray. They didn't know how to respond. Wasn't the government, after all, the fount of impeccably correct attitudes on gender? Hadn't it produced the Blair babes, the Women's Unit, two women's ministers and a chancellor of the exchequer who shaped his budgets specifically for women? Why, then, were women so hostile?

The reason was that the government had tapped into an ideology rather than into reality. It had bought an idea of women that was as insulting as it was false. It viewed them principally as victims of discrimination. It completely failed to grasp that most women who don't work or become members of parliament or professors of nuclear physics are not the victims of prejudice but have freely chosen not to go down such a path.

The unrepresentative, often extremely well-heeled, career women in government talk down to ordinary women, arrogantly assuming that everyone can have an exciting job, a nanny and a New Man. That's why Tony Blair's mystification at being jeered by the Women's Institute was so blackly comical. The expression on his face was the perfect emblem of the Blairites' genuine bewilderment. Because they think they hold the only correct views possible and that everyone who opposes them inhabits the Dark Ages, they cannot believe they themselves may be in the wrong.

If they are telling the WI what they believe the WI wants to hear, then why, they ask in bafflement, the slow handclap?

It is crucial for them to get the right answer to this question. It's not just that they've got to appeal to women, but more particularly to the kind of women represented by the WI. For they stand for the values conjured up by that totemic phrase "middle Britain", subscribing to all the beliefs Blair listed in his speech: community, family, responsibility, sense of history.

Blair knows his grip on power depends on such "small c" conservatives voting for him. That's why, after he sent Tessa Jowell, later to become women's minister, round the country to take the female temperature, she returned with the message that the women Blair had to win over were the kind who belonged to the WI. How ironic, then, that when he took them the message he thought they wanted to hear they threw it back in his face.

For although he was using their language, the substance was a hollow sham. It shows a quite staggering insensitivity for this, of all prime ministers, to presume to preach to the WI about the value of "community", when his oh-so-metropolitan government displays such contempt or indifference towards all the things that make up the beleaguered countryside.

The WI is just about the last institution left that holds together rural communities, faced as they are with the loss of the village shop and post office, the collapse of public transport and the disappearance of the village policeman. This is not to mention (indeed, Blair did not mention) the parlous state of farming and the shambles of genetically modified seed contamination. As for the National Health Service, when people know from first-hand experience that their operations are being cancelled through the disastrous lack of trained theatre staff, it was an insult for Blair to deliver his barely concealed threats to the medical profession about "outdated practices and old-fashioned systems".

This is surely what WI members meant when they protested that they didn't want a "political" speech. Of course they wanted Blair to address the issues that concerned them. What they didn't want was what politics has now become, a meaningless exercise in vacuous platitudes, ideological excuses and dodgy statistical boasting.

They did not want the causes most dear to them to be taken in vain and appropriated for opportunist political ends. Yet that's what they got.

Of course, this is precisely the kind of politics that Blair originally promised to reject. The sense of disillusionment is therefore all the greater. The problem, though, is not just "spin" or cynicism. Blair genuinely believes that what he says should appeal not just to the WI but to every single audience to whom he talks. He doesn't appear to realise not merely that he cannot appeal to everyone but, more profoundly, that he himself holds beliefs that are incompatible.

Thus he genuinely believes in marriage but equally genuinely that no one lifestyle can be judged better than any other, a position that undermines marriage. He believes in the free market, but also in equality. So he'll advocate using the private sector in healthcare delivery but will declare war on consultants who have private practices.

He believes in both equality of opportunity and its antithesis, equality of outcome. So despite his attempt to raise standards of teaching, he pursues a policy of expanding university places that is responsible both for collapsing standards and student penury.

Above all, he must prove to himself that he is not a conservative. So he must be radical. Hence his obsession with modernity and change, and his susceptibility to political correctness over gender, race and "discrimination".

This is surely why he has constructed an absurd Manichean universe in which all problems arise from "the forces of conservatism" and will be resolved simply because the Tories are no longer in charge.

Alas for him, not everything was indeed the Tories' fault. Life is much more complicated. This is not least because most people believe in many of those conservative social values to which the prime minister himself subscribes - when he's not embracing their "radical" and "modern" diametrical opposite.

Is it any wonder that women have lost patience with him?

Melanie Phillips

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.