Slim victory for Labour women

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THE Wales Labour Party has narrowly backed the national leadership's plans to secure equal numbers of men and women candidates at next year's Welsh Assembly elections.

In a heated debate at its annual conference in Swansea yesterday, 51.6 per cent voted for the leadership's preferred option of "twinning" constituencies into pairs with members selecting a man and a woman.

The proposal had aroused the ire of activists in the South Wales valleys, one of the bastions of traditional Labour. An alternative proposed by the Pontypridd constituency - the fiefdom of junior minister Kim Howells MP - which calls for each of the 40 constituencies to choose a man and a woman, with a selection board ruling who should get the seat, won 48.4 per cent.

The Welsh vote will be viewed with interest north of the border, where Labour's twinning approach to candidate selection for the Scottish Parliament has so far gone relatively smoothly.

With Wales sending only four women MPs to Westminster - all Labour - and men outnumbering women on local councils by four to one, the leaders of the "Twin to Win" campaign say that change is long overdue.

Val Feld, director of the Equal Opportunities Commission in Wales and a party activist, is adamant that change will come. "Male domination in politics is unhealthy in a democracy," she said. "It's time to move on, and securing gender balance in the assembly will put down a marker."

In last year's general election, Julie Morgan took Cardiff North from the Conservatives with an 11.49 per cent swing. She was selected from an all-woman shortlist and maintains that women candidates attract slightly higher votes.

"This is all about a new politics to ensure that women are properly represented in Welsh affairs," she said.

Opposition is fiercest in Labour heartlands where general election majorities of 20,000 and more are commonplace.

Llew Smith, MP for Blaenau Gwent, is dismayed by the plan. "It would be totally wrong for someone to be imposed on a constituency," he said.

"Party members in each constituency should continue to be free to choose their candidate.

"What's proposed is a major change which will be greatly resented."

Delegates, fearful that power was leaking away from local parties to the Labour Party's Millbank headquarters in London, warned that the party leadership should not take the grass roots for granted.

John Rogers, a member of Blaenau Gwent council, believed that centralist tendencies were developing in the party, a trend with which local politicians in Wales were increasingly unhappy. "No one is opposed to gender balance, but that can only come about democratically, not by diktat," he said.