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Nice suits, but are Blair's babes doing the business?

AN attack on the "gender apartheid" and "genitalia politics" of Labour's women-only shortlists yesterday provoked strong reaction from the ranks of the party's 101 women MPs.

Writing in the latest edition of Tribune, the Labour weekly, Ann Carlton said: "They are at it again - the whinger wing of Labour feminism, as confused as ever and wanting favours.

"Once, Labour men were so horridly sexist (allegedly) and Labour women so pathetic (allegedly) that only by women-only shortlists could the poor dears become MPs. Now with nearly half the Labour Party's members women, there are different demands. Now it is "constituency twinning" for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, with the often reluctant twin constituencies required to choose one man and one woman."

She claimed that voters and the vast majority of Labour Party members believed that ability, dedication and experience should determine a person's suitability to be a candidate - implying that was the basis on which male MPs were selected, and that women should be given no additional support. But Ms Carlton added the more damaging charge that the additional injection of women MPs at the last election - 121 out of 659 Members - had not made a blind bit of difference to the political scene.

"Before the last election," she said, "we were told that parliamentary selections based on genitalia politics would mean a transformation the House of Commons.

"Thanks to women-only shortlists, the Labour benches would be awash with brightly coloured women's suits, and those women MPs would stand up for women's issues in a way that male MPs had not done. We have seen the suits - very nice and quite expensive. The politics are no different."

She said that there had been no great rush of women to support lone parents or defend the disabled from Government attack, while several women MPs appeared to enjoy a good moan about the lack of creche facilities, or the burden and hours of parliamentary work.

But Ann Clwyd, the veteran Welsh MP, yesterday deplored the attack, pointing out that before she entered the House in 1984, there had been no Welsh women MPs for 34 years, and she was the only one right through to last year's General Election.

"They say we should get into the Commons on merit - like the men. If that were true, there would be dozens more women MPs," Ms Clwyd said.

Jane Griffiths, new Labour MP for Reading East, was also selected without an all-women shortlist. She said: "Why should it be assumed that women are going to make a particular kind of impact, as women? Some individuals will make a great impact, others will make less. She is just making false assumptions."

Caroline Flint, who was selected as Labour candidate for Don Valley without the benefit of all-women shortlist, said Ms Carlton was not living in the real worldand challenged the notion that the women had made no difference.

"Where's Ann Carlton been?" she asked. "A national childcare strategy, minimum wage legislation, one million after-school places, childcare tax credits, employment rights for part-time workers. The impact of women on Labour policy is staring us in the face."