A group of prominent women in the Tory party have warned election strategist Lynton Crosby that personal attacks on Ed Miliband will backfire and put female voters off the Conservatives at the general election.
The MPs and peers, backed by women at grassroots level, believe that attempts to exploit the Labour leader's presentational difficulties in the run-up to the election will "turn off" the public and reinforce the Tories' image as the "nasty party".
On Friday Miliband confronted his own image problem head-on, amid growing worries in Labour ranks that his negative personal ratings could prove decisive next May. In a speech in London, he said David Cameron came to power in 2010 largely as a result of good presentation and the cultivation of a smooth image – an approach which he could not, and would not, try to imitate.
Admitting his own PR failings, he said: "If you want the politician from central casting, it's not me; it's the other guy. If you want a politician who thinks a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me."
He continued: "I am not going to able to compete with that. And I don't intend to. I want to offer something different."
While Miliband's advisers believe being honest about his image will help people to identify with him as substantial, rather than a fake creation, Tory strategists think the Labour leader was digging himself into a deeper hole by highlighting a key reason why he is unelectable.
Crosby, the Australian brought in by Cameron to run the Tory campaign, is said to be preparing to focus heavily on Miliband's personal foibles and perceived weaknesses in a hard-hitting and personalised campaign. Images of Miliband struggling to eat a bacon sandwich and pulling strange faces, as well as sounding odd on television, are expected to feature heavily on campaign posters and in broadcast videos. But women say such an approach will not work, would be wrong and will not help the party attract more female MPs.
Niki Molnar, national chair of the Conservative Women's Organisation, a grassroots network that provides support and focus for women in the Tory party, said women in particular were "put off when elections descend into identity politics". While she blames the media in part, she believes political parties have a responsibility, too. "Women want to hear what someone will do for them and their family, not what shoes a politician is wearing, how they eat a bacon sandwich or where they went to school."
She added: "It's right that candidates question their opponent's policies, record and judgement but let's skip the debate about how they look. Labour's Crewe & Nantwich ("Lord Snooty") by-election campaign in 2008 showed that personality politics turn people off elections."
Baroness Anne Jenkin, co-founder of Women2Win, which campaigns to increase the number of women in parliament and public life, said women were not concerned by Miliband's oddities. "Personal attacks of any kind turn women off. Women don't mind him [Miliband] seeming weird, but they worry whether he is up to the job."
A former party vice-chairman, Margot James, who is now on the No 10 policy board, said it was not only unnecessary tactically to go for Miliband, but it would also be wrong: "Miliband's image is fairly well set with the public now. We don't need to do anything. But also it would be wrong. It is wrong to traduce people in the public space. And it will play badly with the voters."
Charlotte Leslie, who entered parliament in 2010 as Tory MP for Bristol North West, said that if Crosby ordered personal attacks on Miliband, voters would think the less of the Conservatives. "Negative campaigning never, ever works. If I were Crosby I would resist it. Miliband has given us a gift and we don't need to do anything but quietly accept it.
"The more we criticise him for how he looks or sounds, the more our opponents will say 'it's those horrible Tories again.' It would really demean us. We need to focus on the fact that he would screw up the country not on how he looks."
Tracey Crouch, Tory MP for Chatham and Aylesford agreed: "We should be focusing on his policies that would hit hard-working families not his personality."
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