Oh so negative Tony!

LABOUR'S negative campaigning in this phoney pre-election period is having a massive impact on female voters, with the party enjoying an approval rating of just 34% among women with 55% saying they are dissatisfied with Tony Blair, his party, and his government.

By Graham Dines

LABOUR'S negative campaigning in this phoney pre-election period is having a massive impact on female voters, with the party enjoying an approval rating of just 34% among women with 55% saying they are dissatisfied with Tony Blair, his party, and his government.

The finding by polling organisation MORI are said to mirror private polls for both and the Tories, and follow the increasingly personal attacks on Tory leader Michael Howard and a deliberate campaign ploy to focus on Tory and Liberal Democrat policies rather than "shout" about their own achievements of eight years in power.

Women hold the keys to Downing Street – in the last century, they were naturally inclined to the Conservatives and in particular they liked Margaret Thatcher's strength of character.

But they deserted the Conservatives in their droves in 1997 to propel Labour into power as the party ditched its strident left-wing tone and adopted socially inclusive and family orientated policies that appealed to working mums.

Enter Camilla Parker-Bowles. A normal royal wedding should infuse the nation with such a feel good factor that it would rub off onto the government of the day.

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Given that Prince Charles and Mrs Parker Bowles will be marrying just weeks before polling day, it's no wonder the Prime Minister looked so excited when news of the wedding was revealed.

He probably had visions of charabanc loads of women busily baking cakes to eat as they line the streets of Windsor to wish the couple well.

But it's all gone wrong since then. The wedding has been switched from the castle to local register office, some of the nation's most eminent constitutional lawyers are said to be considering challenging the legality of the ceremony, and the Queen has refused to attend it.

Mrs Parker Bowles, a fox hunting divorcee, seems to have little affinity with the public, which is still in love with Diana Princess of Wales.

While there is no hostility as such to the wedding, there seems to be an indifference which must worry the Queen, her advisers and politicians of all parties.

If Tony Blair is not going to be swept back into Downing Street by the women of Britain on a patriotic tide following the Charles-Camilla wedding, he's going to woo the feminine vote in other ways.

Which is why, as the election approaches, the Prime Minister has been doing the rounds of day-time chat shows so beloved of stay-at-home women – Channel 5 and Richard and Judy on Channel 4.

And this week, he even popped up on Radio 4's Woman's Hour, regarded as the mouthpiece for the family values twin sets and pearls brigade.

FOLLOWING the Tory initiatives to halve council tax for pensioner households, the Liberal Democrats this week reaffirmed their policy to scrap the tax altogether and replace it with a local income tax.

Double income families – the norm in today's society – will be hugely penalised by the proposal, which smacks of the Thatcher government's poll tax which forced every adult earner to pay for local government services.

Unabashed at the effect his plans will have on Middle England, Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy said: "In any tax reform there will be winner and losers – especially if there is redistribution – a word that I do not shy away from."

Mr Kennedy plans to abolish stamp duty for houses under £150,000, which would exempt almost half a million homebuyers – particularly hard pressed first time purchasers – every year and introduce a 50p top rate of tax for those earning more than £100,000 a year.

The party plans to fund 10,000 more police on the streets and reduce class sizes for 5-7 year-old children to 20. But one proposal will hit rural areas hard – doubling the vehicle excise duty for 4x4 vehicles.

Launching the proposals, Mr Kennedy – who yesterday visited the constituency of Norfolk South which the party believes it has chance of winning at the election – said: "It is important that the tax burden does not fall disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable. We believe the priorities we are setting out for spending taxpayers' money are the priorities of the British people."

The Kennedy proposals were immediately ridiculed on behalf of Labour by Paul Boeteng, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. "The Liberal Democrats continue to make promises and do absolutely nothing to address the confusion at the heart of their tax and spending plans. They have made yet another promise to cut stamp duty with no idea how they would pay for it.

"Their plans for a local income tax, far from offering tax cuts, would hit hard working families hardest. For a couple on average earnings with a combined income of £41,000, this would mean an increase of £1,170 a year."

For the Tories, Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin said: "The Lib Dem plans are nothing more than a recipe for clobbering millions of ordinary people, and for doing untold damage to the British economy

LOCAL Government Minister Nick Raynsford crowed this week that council tax rises were the lowest for a decade – "in marked contrast to the average 16.5% average increase in the last year of Michael Howard's poll tax."

Mr Raynsford cannot be allowed to get away with this – two years ago, Suffolk county council, controlled don't forget by his own party, hiked council tax by 18.5%.

The only reason tax rises are low this year is that the Government, with an election looming and desperate to keep voters sweet, has poured extra resources into town and county hall coffers.

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