Leading Article: The Tories must feminise their party

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The Independent Culture
GETTING MORE women into Parliament could be the Conservative Party's only hope. After all, as the old feminist slogan had it, they could hardly make a worse job of it than the men, could they? There are only 14 women Tory MPs, and they include all the party's best performers: Ann Widdecombe, Theresa May, Angela Browning, Gillian Shephard and Teresa Gorman. So somebody needs to find the shrewd Ffion Jenkins a by-election to fight, urgently. Then she and Miss Widdecombe can fight a leadership contest.

The problem is, how to do it? The Labour Party did it the best way, which was to go for a strong dose of positive discrimination and have it struck down by the courts after large numbers of women had been selected. That meant that the party did not - in the end - have to defend the indefensible, namely the exclusion of men on the grounds of their sex, and yet ended up with the right outcome in the form of 101 female MPs.

The fact that a quarter of Labour's MPs are women, however, has had disappointingly little effect on the male-dominated and family-unfriendly House of Commons. True, the Labour benches and even the Cabinet look as though they are inhabited by relatively normal people, while the Tory side and the Shadow Cabinet look like the boys and prefects of a single-sex school - albeit with a few token girls having been allowed into the sixth form.

But the modernisation of Westminster's archaic working practices is said to have been blocked - by the House's first woman Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, who has shown all Margaret Thatcher's lack of sympathy towards women who have not yet made it to the top.

That should not put the Tories off their quest to feminise their party from top to bottom. Of course, they cannot go down Labour's women-only shortlist route. So far, though, all that they have proposed in order to present themselves as modern, fresh and representative is a "target" of 250 women candidates at the next election.

We should be a little more convinced of the Conservatives' sincerity if the person in charge of establishing this feminist base camp on the slopes of their electoral Everest were someone other than Roger Freeman, the Brylcreemed former minister whose main achievement is being mistaken for Cecil Parkinson.