Jobs in politics are by tradition for the boys. Now, in many constituen cies, men can't get a look-in. Labour's selective policy of nominating only women is upsetting the agenda. On the day that Leeds North-East met to choose its Labour candidate for the next election, E Jane Dickson watched the five high-flying nominees and the unease they caused. Photographs by Caroline Penn
God knows how many committee hours went into democratically selecting the exact shade of the carpet in Leeds Civic Hall. The wine-dark Wilton that softens the footfalls of the mighty in the Grand Banqueting Hall is a politic blend of Red Flag crimson and Tory Blue. A carpet for all seasons. The City Council should market the colour as "Marginal Magenta".

Leeds is a belt-and-braces kind of city, not given to making rash decisions on carpets or anything else. For 30 years, Leeds North-East was the Tory seat of Margaret Thatcher's mentor, Sir Keith Joseph.

Over the past ten years, however, there has been a clear, if cautious, swing to the Left. Cutting across class and culture boundaries from inner- city Chapeltown, an area of high unemployment and racial tension, through the middle-class suburbs of Moortown and Roundhay, to the stockbroker belt of Harewood, Leeds North-East is a near-perfect microcosm of the British voting public. In 1992, the sitting Tory MP, Timothy Kirkhope, hung on to his majority by his toenails. Now a further swing of just four per cent will clinch a Labour victory.

All of which makes this constituency the perfect test for Labour's controversial women-only shortlist policy. In 1993, the party conference passed a resolution to put up women candidates in half of its most winnable marginal seats and in half the seats where the Labour MP was standing down. The aim was to have a quota of between 80 and 90 female Labour MPs in the House at the next general election; the effect has been to drive a wedge through the heart of the party.

In Leeds North-East, there are five women competing to become the new Labour candidate, and Central Casting could not supply a more representative sampling

Liz Davies is the "outsider" in every sense. A barrister, specialising in housing law, she lives and works in Islington, north London, the intellectual heartland of New Labour. She is unlikely, however, to be popping round the corner to borrow a manifesto from the Blairs. As an Islington councillor, she publicly pronounced herself "disgusted" at the Labour leader's decision to send his son out of the borough to go to school at the Brompton Oratory. She dislikes the term "Hard Left". Those who have crossed her report that the softest thing about this 31-year-old is her teeth.

The Oratory furore was not the first time Davies' resolutely uncoiffed head had appeared above the parapet. In 1992, she defied the Labour whip over the Community Charge. A year later, she was suspended from the council for three months for going against the whip on cuts affecting an adventure playground in her ward.

Davies is standing for the Leeds North-East candidacy on the invitation of colleagues from the Socialist Campaign Network, based in Chapel Allerton. Her relaxed sartorial style has drawn censure from the constituency, but Davies, a stranger to the ironing board, is unimpressed by the Barbara Follett "colour-me-electable" tendency. She won't be kissing babies, either. "People don't have to like me," she says. "They just have to agree with me."

Alison Lowe, by contrast, is a born demagogue. At 30, the youngest of the five candidates, Lowe is a black single mother, born and bred in the notorious Seacroft Estate in East Leeds. "When Catherine Cookson writes about poverty in the North, I'm telling you, she doesn't know the half of it," says Lowe, who came from one of only two black families on the estate. She now works for a Halifax housing project, rehabilitating ex-offenders, is a Leeds city councillor and chair of the council's women's committee. She has little time, however, for the more esoteric end of women's politics. "I'm really interested in women's lives, not the arty farty stuff - just the day-to-day issues faced by working-class women on the estates."

Nor is she starry-eyed about the transforming effect of women-only shortlists: "I'm a feminist, but I'd like to win this candidacy because I'm the best, not because I'm a woman. I'm not so bothered about being given an extra push-up; it's just that I know that as soon as the new candidate puts a foot wrong, it'll be the old 'oh, it's because she's a woman and we didn't have the chance to elect a man' rap."

While there is possibly more passion than politics in Lowe's hustings style, she can turn a slogan to neat effect. Questioned on economic policy, her answer is a model of New Labour rhetoric. "I'm not against wealth," she says simply. "I'm against poverty."

Of all the candidates, the one with most riding on the "women-only" ticket is Sarah Perrigo. At 52, Perrigo, a lecturer in peace studies at Bradford University, has been at the sharp end of women's politics since the Seventies. She argued for women's quotas through the 1993 Labour Party conference and campaigned hard for an all-women shortlist in Leeds North-East. Whippet- thin, with the haunted look of impending martyrdom, Perrigo now fears that her success in fighting for the women-only shortlist may count against her in the eyes of the "selectorate": "Most of the anti-women's quota feeling is directed at me. People people are saying, 'Yes, she's competent, but she's also the one who got us into this mess in the first place. I've given everything I've got to getting women into parliament. The irony is that now I'm being squeezed for it."

As serene as Perrigo is jumpy, Barbara Hawkins, a lecturer in science and health from affluent North Yorks, stood against Leon Brittan in 1983. The local paper ran a banner headline: woman selected as labour candidate. A born-again Blairite, Hawkins is delighted "to see the Labour Party looking once again like the party I joined in 1974". Clear of eye and stiff of hair, Hawkins, it has to be said, looks every inch the Tory Dame.

The final candidate, Lorraine Hardy, has strong union backing for her candidacy. A 42-year-old office manager and treasurer of Leeds TUC, she has a serious, slightly stolid, manner and a killer stare. Hardy's campaign is based on the "totally unsexy" issues of unemployment, retirement provision and the need for a minimum wage. A highly efficient operator, Hardy is not, say her critics, a "people person".

For the five candidates, selection is a kind of ordeal-by-procedure. You could carpet the Kremlin wall-to-wall in the time it takes a Labour Party official to explain the rules governing the selection of a parliamentary candidate. Party members pass the peppermints and squirm in their seats, restive as children in church. A veteran in a Parka that looks as if it might have seen active service at Aldermarston gives his top teeth a systematic sucking, from molar to incisor and back again, as we are warned, with nervous emphasis, that racist or sexist questions from the floor will not be tolerated. The word "sexist" raises an odd, wolfish glint in the eye of some members. It is as if they suddenly scent come-uppance in the air.

Sexism is the great shibboleth of the women's quota debate. Many men feel that a system designed to exclude them is unfair and, therefore, sexist; while many women, like Labour policy expert Ann Carlton, see the "helping hand syndrome" as patronising - and, therefore, sexist. In the muddied field of gender politics, the dividing lines between affirmative action, positive discrimination and sexism are not always clear. One woman's level playing field is necessarily another man's sex discrimination.

As far as the five women sequestered in the Blue Chamber of the Civic Hall are concerned, the semantics of sexism are secondary to the fact that voting members drifting through from the Banqueting Hall have infiltrated the executive washroom, placing it off-limits to candidates. Contact with voting members, accidental or not, means instant disqualification. For this, and other unvoiced reasons, the fragile camaraderie that exists between the women is beginning to fray. There is no eyeballing of opponents, no "psyching out" as such, in the Blue Chamber. Instead, candidates offer each other glasses of mineral water with elaborate courtesy and chat carelessly of the lovely relaxed evening they spent the night before. It is an intimidation technique instantly recognisable to anyone who ever crammed outside an exam-hall while classmates pooh-poohed the very idea of revision.

Lots are drawn to establish the order of speaking. Hardy is led away down the maroon corridor to the Banqueting Hall in the custody of a grim- faced regional officer. Everyone else stops pretending they're at a party. Davies silently rehearses her speech, nodding and hopping like a jackdaw with her crumpled black linen flapping round her. Lowe draws deeply on an asthma inhaler and smiles at her silver shoes. Perrigo, who has brought her daughter along for moral support and who seems to have non-voting friends positioned at every corner of the building for confidence-building hugs, smokes so hard and fast that she appears to be swallowing cigarettes.

It is a peculiarity of the selection process that candidates, once they have received their nominations, must not be seen to canvass votes. No written communication, other than their printed mission statements, may be sent out to members. The telephone lines are, however, hot. All the candidates, except Davies, who frankly acknowledges the efforts of her Hard Left caucus in drumming up support, affect airy indifference to last-minute vote chasing, but each is acutely aware of the real or imagined campaigns of the others. Lowe knows that she has been criticised by Hardy's faction for wearing a pounds 300 suit and finds this slur on her socialism "bloody hilarious". Hardy suspects Lowe of mounting a whispering campaign against her and is anything but amused. Perrigo is plunged into misery when members who would usually vote for her are seen in Davies' camp. Hawkins alone is believable in her somewhat arch withdrawal from the secret-ops dog fight. She's still not entirely sure of the other candidate's names.

The atmosphere in the Banqueting Hall is not encouraging. Only 72 members are present. It's a disappointing turn-out for a constituency membership of about 600, and a measure of the local disapproval of women-only shortlists.

On the platform, Lowe is finding out that charisma is no match for an organised claque. Clear factions have emerged in the 15 minutes of question time allotted to each candidate. The apparent trick is to get one's supporters to ask an easy, and preferably lengthy, question before a hostile questioner puts up a hard one. But, occasionally, a hard ball smashes through the defence.

Asked to outline her future impact on Labour foreign policy, Lowe answers with more truth than judgement that she is more concerned by the women in her ward who turn to prostitution to pay off benefit debts than she is about Bosnia. Even the self-possessed Davies is rattled by a pointed inquiry about her suspension from Islington Council in 1993. Another questioner gets sniffy about her political provenance. "Islington", he points out, for all the world as if it were an original thought, "is a byword for Loony Lefties." Davies waits, impassive, until the merriment subsides, then answers, with a possibly unwise measure of metropolitan scorn, that the term "loony went out with the early Eighties".

The surprise performance of the day comes from Perrigo, who, gagged by nerves at earlier meetings, comes storming out of nowhere with a speech worthy of Eva Peron and rushes offstage to thundering applause (and a group hug). As members shuffle forward to the ballot box, it is still anyone's game

Miles away from the Civic Hall, Fabian Hamilton is trying hard to pretend that this is just another Saturday. Hamilton is one of Labour's "lost boys". In 1992, as Labour candidate for Leeds North-East, he achieved the highest Labour swing in the North of England, but, since the constituency voted (by a single vote) in favour of a women-only shortlist, he has been denied the chance of a parliamentary seat to which he feels he has fair title.

"For six years, I was chair of Leeds city council's equal opportunities committee," points out Hamilton. "Equal ops was my life. And to find that, as far as the Labour Party is concerned, equal opportunity now means positive discrimination, came as a real shock to me. I am told that my generation of men will just have to stand back and make way for women. And I understand why certain women in the Party have pushed that policy. But I think they're wrong. What they don't seem to take on board is that I've only got one life, too. I didn't choose my time on earth any more than I chose my sex or my race. And I really mean it when I say that being kept out of a job just because I'm a man offends me as deeply as being kept out of a job just because I'm a Jew."

Hamilton will not, however, be following the example of Peter Jepson, who, barred from standing for the women-only seats of Regent's Park & Kensington and Brentford & Isleworth, lodged a claim of sex discrimination against the Labour Party. "If you spend most of your life working for the Party, you don't betray it by taking it to court," says Hamilton. "I don't like it, but I have to accept that all-women shortlists are a fait accompli. Any Labour woman, even if she gets the candidacy at my expense, has got to be better than Timothy Kirkhope. The important thing is that we win the seat."

In the Council Chamber, the tellers are shuffling ballot slips with the panache of Monte Carlo croupiers.The "single transferable vote" is a balloting system of Jacobean fiendishness. Members may vote for up to five candidates in order of preference. If any candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, they are declared the winner. If no candidate has a sufficient majority, the candidate with the least number of first preferences is knocked out and her votes are divided among the remaining contenders. And so on, until a clear winner emerges.

If this is tedious to explain, it is even more excruciating to observe. Lowe and Perrigo, the local favourites, retire to the far end of the room and discuss their holiday plans. Davies, Hardy and Hawkins hang over the ballot box like children waiting to lick the icing bowl. Every time her name floats up from the low mumble at the telling table, a tremor thrills in Davies' neck. Hardy stares at the piles of votes, as if engaged in some supreme effort of telekinesis. And Hawkins watches the whole laborious process as if no more delightful entertainment could possibly be devised.

Finally, the winner is announced. Liz Davies, the Londoner, is the new Labour candidate for Leeds North-East. The applause in the hall is polite but slightly puzzled. Few appear to have voted for Davies on first preference, but somehow Lowe and Perrigo have cancelled each other out and Davies has mopped up on the third and fourth ballot. The unsuccessful candidates are all in the arms of friends or family. The winner has no one to hug.

By Monday morning, Davies' frank features loom palely from local and national press under headlines of the loony leftie in last ditch vote snatch variety. It is "revealed" that she is a leading supporter of gay and lesbian rights and that she spoke out in support of Winston Silcott, the man wrongly accused of killing PC Keith Blakelock in 1985. At no point is it conceded that these are the proper concerns of a conscientious Labour candidate.

Certainly, "Loonygate" is enough to wrong-foot her with her new constituency, which was nervous from the start about a London candidate. Davies has always pledged that, were she selected, she would move to Leeds immediately, but it doesn't stop the scare stories about "Southern, middle-class carpet-baggers" preying on the good faith of Northern folk. It is whispered around Leeds North- East that her candidature may not be ratified by the National Executive Committee, though this comes as a surprise to both Davies and the Labour Party HQ

"All this has nothing to do with me," Davies protests. "It's just another stick to beat women's quotas with. The people who are agitating now are the people who opposed all-women shortlists in the first place. It's not that they didn't want a London woman, or didn't want a left-wing woman; they just didn't want a woman at all."