Revenge of an odd couple

Mary Braid looks into the eccentric world of Labour's giant-killers
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The Independent Online
It may go down as one of the greatest recent setbacks to the political advancement of British women. Then again, when the brouhaha has died down, the battle between the Labour Party and two male members over all- women shortlists may principally be remembered as the time when anoraks, flat caps and polyester stood proud against New Labour's sharpest, best- paid suits and won.

Peter Jepson, 45, and Roger Dyas-Elliott, 49 - the rather unprepossessing, sartorially challenged mature students who took on the party - were yesterday basking in the glory of their David against Goliath victory. Backed - naturally - by the Daily Mail, the northern-voweled rebels of the party's grass roots had shown the south-east-dominated, PR-obsessed, power-hungry party machine just where to get off.

That would teach Clare Short MP and Barbara Follett, Queen of the Labour luvvie set, to advocate turning down men for selection as parliamentary candidates just because their bits were the wrong shape.

Anyone who was in the Leeds industrial tribunal hearing on Monday, when the two men accused their party of sexual discrimination, could not fail to have been impressed. In one corner we had Mr Dyas-Elliott and Mr Jepson, self-taught in European law and conveying his documents to court in plastic carrier bags. In the other corner a formidable legal team led by James Goudie, top flight London QC, long-time supporter of Labour and personal friend of Tony Blair's. Mr Goudie smoothly referred the three-strong panel to beautifully presented points. Mr Jepson, representing himself, fumbled and occasionally apologised for failing to provide the members with documents. He had been having trouble with the hotel photocopier.

So after their historic victory did dynamic duo return home conquering heroes? Er, not quite. Locally, these new champions of men's rights - or selfish male whingers, if you take a broader view of politics - are considered non-entities with no chance of being selected as parliamentary candidates on their own merits.

In Mr Dyas-Elliott's Bassetlaw, Nottinghamshire, constituency, one senior party member described the pony-tailed and bearded bachelor who failed to be adopted as Labour candidate for Scarborough, Grantham and Doncaster North before the last election, as a shambolic figure distinguished mainly by a highly individual sense of style.

"Despite being a bit on the edge of things locally he never misses party conference, to which he wears layers of jumpers, a long coat and a Russian hat," said Mr Dyas- Elliott's local comrade. "Maybe he feels the cold, but he ends up looking like a Russian spy. We always wonder how he penetrates security."

Until a few years ago he was in fact plain Mr Elliott. He only adopted a double-barrel after delving into his family history. "If you want me to be entirely frank, he's seen as an eccentric and a bit of a pain in the arse," said another local member, despite their shared distaste for all-female slates. "As to his parliamentary aspirations, it took him everything to get on the parish council."

And the success of Mr Jepson, a PhD student who hails from Oldham but now studies and lectures part-time at University College London, has stunned activists in his local ward at Feltham Heston, west London.

Success, it seems, is not something local comrades usually associated with Mr Jepson, and back home few seemed impressed by his "little-man's" stand against the party, which involved applying to two London constituencies designated by Labour to be all women. "He could have stood for the seat in his own constituency," said one. "That was not all women. But he didn't. He is not seen as selectable or electable, just a bit of a local eccentric."

Phil Woolas, secretary of the Brentford and Isleworth constituency party, to which Mr Jepson applied, said: "We would be more likely to have Margaret Thatcher to Christmas dinner than to select him."