Hague's team take on sexists of the shires

The Tory party has fewer female MPs than in the 1920s, writes Kim Sengupta
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The Independent Online
Five months after the Conservatives' May meltdown, a male MP was at a hotel bar during the party conference in Blackpool, where the Tories were meant to begin the process of reform and modernisation. "Why do women have smaller feet than men?" he asked. "So they can stand nearer the sink." His companions, all men, laughed. One remarked: "See, we are a broad church: here's a guy too poor to buy his wife a dishwasher."

The exchange illustrates the type of attitude still prevalent in a party that is trying to reinvent itself for the 21st century, and attract such under-represented sections of society as ethnic minorities and young women.

The Conservatives now have fewer female MPs than in the days of Nancy Astor in the 1920s: 13 compared with "new" Labour's 101. In the last Parliament there were more Old Etonians than Tory women.

Yet to show they are serious about attracting women to the party, the Conservatives now have Peta Buscombe as vice-chairman ("We haven't yet run to anything as PC as chairperson") responsible for women. She has played a key part in producing a green paper on the recruitment of women candidates. It rejects Labour's all-women shortlists but proposes a quota of 25 per cent of candidates interviewed for selection to be women. Mrs Buscombe, a 43-year-old barrister with three children, said: "There are undoubtedly still some prejudices against women within the party. But we are determined that change should take place. When it comes to candidate selection, we have got to change the notion that the normal Conservative candidate is a married man with 2.5 children."

Most of the young women activists in the party say they have faced little overt sexism, and in any event the electoral disaster had fatally weakened the position of the old guard. Fiona Buxton is likely to stand for the chairmanship of the influential policy forum, the Bow Group, and is tipped to end up on a parliamentary shortlist before long. She said: "People do get quite surprised when they hear you have political ambition, but they tend to accept you when they know you are serious. But my husband, Edward, has been asked by other male Bow Group members whether he minds me spending so much time on political activites.

"The young women I know in the party are against female-only shortlists, and they are for one member one vote. It is no longer a matter of debate whether the party should have more female MPs, but how we can go about getting them."

Ms Buxton is 32 and has a young son. She is from Scotland, went to a state school and then read archaeology and ancient history at Edinburgh University. She has worked as a researcher and edited the Bow Group magazine Crossbow. She feels she is fairly typical of the new breed of Tory women. The days of women from the shires who went to finishing school and only progressed beyond that tocoffee mornings is a stereotype which, she claims, has gone.

Geeta Sidhu certainly does not fit the stereotype. She was born into a family of Indian Punjabi descent in Malawi and came to Britain at 14. She is now 29, a solicitor married to a Russian businessman, whose name she does not want to give, and the mother of a young son. She stood against Jack Straw at Blackburn at the last election and was briefly a focus of media attention when she spoke against Lord Tebbit's latest pronouncement on race, loyalty, and being British.

Last week, speaking from a dacha outside Moscow, she said: "Of course I think I belong in the Conservative party; Asian values are very much Conservative values. I had a very warm welcome in Blackburn, and it was in fact the women in the party there who selected me. I do not believe in positive discrimination, and I do not go about thinking of myself all the time as an Asian."

The complexities of loyalty and nationality in the modern UK is something Mary Macleod is having to cope with. A 28-year-old marketing consultant, she was named in the Independent on Sunday as a member of a future Tory cabinet before the election.

Ms Macleod stood at the last election against the Liberal Democrat Charles Kennedy at Ross, Skye and Inverness West. Next time round she intends to go for a seat in the Scottish parliament, because she will have much more effective power there.

One high-profile young Tory woman already at Westminster is former Daily Telegraph political correspondent Julie Kirkbride, who won Bromsgrove. She says about half the candidates at selection meetings, rather than 25 per cent, should be women "because they make up half the population". Her own background, she points out, is hardly that of a typical Tory candidate. Her father was a lorry driver who died when she was seven, and her widowed mother, a secretary, brought her up along with two other children. Ms Kirkbride maintains that the Tories will overturn Labour's 179 majority at the next election. Critics may see this as an example of how blind faith in one's party can overpower an MP's judgement, no matter which sex the MP is.