Election '97 : Number of women MPs set to double

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There could be nearly twice as many women MPs in Parliament after the election, according to figures released last night by the Fawcett Society.

As nominations for 1 May closed, nearly 400 women were contesting seats in the election. Of those, the society believes 111 are standing in safe constituencies or where a swing of less than eight per cent would secure them victory. This result would transform the Commons where there were 62 women members last time.

Women would make up around 17 per cent of the Commons compared with 9.2 per cent of the representation during the last session.

Even with a six per cent swing, the magic 100 mark would be breached for the first time. Mary-Ann Stephenson, of the Fawcett Society, said: "I think that creates a critical mass which is important. One of the problems a lot of women MPs have is they need to show they can cut it as well as the men.

"Once we get more women in, it will be easier for them to address issues which are not seen as serious political issues at the moment, like how we deal with childcare."

She said the vast majority of women were in unwinnable seats. Although all parties had trumpeted the number of female candidates they were fielding, what mattered was whether they were likely to get elected.

On an eight per cent swing, Labour will have 92 women compared with 54 at present and the Tories 15 after the election. This would represent a smaller female presence on the Conservative benches as there were 25 women in the last Parliament.

Ten Tory women defending candidates are fighting safe seats. Seventeen female Labour defending candidates have safe seats and another eight of its new candidates look virtually certain to win.

None of the Liberal Democrat women MPs has a safe seat - defined by the Fawcett Society as where the contesting party needs more than an eight per cent swing - although Ray Michie in Argyll and Bute is thought likely to be returned.

All seven Plaid Cymru women candidates are fighting in constituencies where they need a swing of more than 25 per cent to get elected. The society believes two Scottish National Party will have two women after the election - defending candidates Margaret Ewing and Roseanna Cunningham.

Ms Stephenson said: "It will be important that a number of women are all entering at the same time. If there is a huge chunk of women all new together, it will be easier to back each other up."

A Labour Party spokesman said they had 90 target seats and women candidates in exactly half - as they had hoped to achieve under the controversial all-women shortlists procedure which was ruled illegal.

Up to 5,000 people are expected to contest the general election compared with just under 3,000 candidates in 1992. In addition to candidates for the main parties, pro-life campaigners, the Natural Law Party and the Referendum Party will be standing in many constituencies.