POLITICS

Charlotte Vere: Tory Policies Need A Women's Touch

02/10/2011 12:46 BST | Updated 02/12/2011 10:12 GMT

Charlotte Vere is not a feminist, thank you very much. The former Conservative candidate and mother-of-two last shaved her armpits “this morning” and she’s definitely wearing a bra. Still, she has just started a new-think tank called Women On, designed to highlight what the fairer sex think about issues from food prices to defence spending - and plenty in between.

About time too. Women are getting sick of being ignored. Prime minister David Cameron’s rating amongst them has dropped in polls - from 45% to 25%, and on Sunday morning the front page headline in the Sunday Times read: 'Cameron Says Sorry To Women'.

So who are these women? And why are they so angry? Charlotte Vere, who spoke to HuffPost UK before the prime minister’s public apology, reluctantly refers to them as “the squeezed middle”: “I hate to use Ed Miliband's term, because the' squeezed middle' was bad and 'something for something' is really bad and 'new bargain' is awful. It's Primark."

For her the issue is complex: “If you are hemorraging supporters, why is that? That is something that needs to be looked at more deeply. Just the same as if you suddenly shot up in your support from women, why is that? What did you do that made women's lives more easy? Because it's not going to be about lipstick or make up, it's not as simple as that.”

Part of it, she admits, is the cut to child benefits for households with a parent paying 40% tax - a cut that will hit core Conservative voters. But she doesn’t think the government will U-turn - “Why take the pain, the political heat? They’ve paid the price for it," - and she’s happy about some of the new proposals for female supporters, such as flexible childcare. “That's a fantastic idea and one which we think should be kept".

But it’s not just child benefit. One of Labour’s more effective opposition strategies has been highlighting the effect the austerity programme has been having on women. Female unemployment is at a 23-year-high, and this morning, straight after the prime minister’s apology Yvette Cooper put out a statement saying it was “typically out of touch”.

“He still clearly doesn't get it. Women are angry about what the government is doing, not what he is saying. Women are still being hit twice as hard as men, facing record levels of unemployment, major cuts to child care support and women in their fifties face a £5,000 raid on their pensions.

"The Prime Minister needs to change policy urgently and apologise for what he has been doing not just what he's been saying."

Vere herself admits there's something missing from political discourse - and she wanted to address that by starting Women On. For her the government made a mistake in getting policies out “without the benefit of female scrutiny.”

“If I were to do one thing, it would be just to make it OK to talk about women. Because I find so often, in most places it's not normal. If I go to a party and I say to people 'I'm setting up a think tank about women,' I can't tell you how many people sort-of roll their eyes and expect me to become some Harriet Harman figure.

"They automatically assume that I'm going to start talking about very radical things. And I'm not, I just want it to be normal to talk about half the population, which any normal person does."

While not specifically a Conservative think tank, Women On is firmly centre right - or “moderate”.

"I think you can start getting into ever-more minority debates the second you start talking about women. It's not long before people start talking to you about female genital mutilation. I just want to bring the discussion back to mainstream ideas. I want to focus on women who earn £26,000 a year, want to keep on working, what do they think about energy prices?"

But women who earn £26,000 a year can be feminists too. Vere identifies many equality issues - women who are frozen out of the workforce after having children (“it’s very, very hard”), unequal pay, the choices available to women, the barriers that remain because of gender, wasted female potential - she just doesn't want to use the 'F' word.

"If you look at what it is, if you look at it's people who are at a certain end of politics. They're very extreme, let's face it. Radically anti-cuts, and it's not, kind of, it's not going to be reclaimed. There's a new word for feminists, I just don't know what it is yet.

"We're in this strange sort of situation where everyboy believes in what we're trying to do, but they don't really know what to call it because the old word doesn't really work anymore. And people are very rarely starting to talk about it because it's become somehow taboo, to talk about women.”

Before Vere started Women On, she worked for No To AV and was the Tory candidate in Brighton Pavillion, a constituency eventually won by the Green party - who are, apparently, “like a cult'. So will she stand again? And is she on Cameron’s A-list?

"I don't know if the A-list still exists. There's no formal A-list anyway, and I wasn't on it because it was before my time. So, I am on the official candidates list and obviously given the opportunity I would love to but... it might be that Women On becomes not more important in a self-important kind of way, but something that has a bigger thing to it."