The battle for a principle

Advertisement in 'Tribune' led to a legal fight, write John Rentoul and Donald Macintyre
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It was an extraordinary story of determined amateurs fighting for a passionately held principle against the weight of the legal and political establishment.

The story began early last year when Peter Jepson, a Labour party member for 16 years and part-time law lecturer, saw an advertisement in Tribune, the left-wing weekly. It invited applications from women to be Labour's candidate in the new constituency of Regent's Park and Kensington North in London.

Mr Jepson, who is writing a PhD thesis on racial discrimination, thought it "didn't look right" and looked up the Sex Discrimination Act. Eventually he realised that political parties were "qualifying bodies" under the Act, because they "facilitated" access to the job of being an MP.

Mr Jepson then applied to be considered as the Labour candidate for Regent's Park, and later for his home constituency of Brentford and Isleworth, in west London, which also had an all-woman shortlist. When he was rejected, he applied to an industrial tribunal for a declaration that the policy was against the law.

He later joined his case with that of Roger Dyas-Elliott, a mature student who wanted to be the Labour candidate Keighley, West Yorkshire, where an all-woman shortlist was imposed by Labour's National Executive Committee.

Labour, despite having obtained counsel's opinion that the policy was lawful, took the challenge seriously. It was represented at the two-day case at Leeds industrial tribunal by James Goudie QC, a friend of the Labour leader. Mr Jepson represented himself and Mr Dyas-Elliott,

Mr Jepson pestered the Equal Opportunities Commission, which supported Labour's policy, until it agreed to give him access to its archives and to pay for a counsel's opinion on a point of European law.

The key case, called Kalanke, last year, concerned a German local authority which had a policy of giving preference to women where a man and a woman were found to be equally well qualified for a job.

This form of positive discrimination was found to be unlawful under the European Equal Treatment directive. The tribunal yesterday found that if that was unlawful, then a "total block" on men, as in Labour's policy, would also be against European law.

Yesterday, the chairman rebuked Mr Goudie for warning that the case had "profound constitutional consequences". He said: "Although Mr Goudie put it with impeccable politeness, we take it he regards this issue as being out of our league." The tribunal found in their favour on every point. Even on the most politically sensitive question - whether it was up to a court to decide if a political party had a realistic chance of winning a seat - the tribunal found against Labour.

The policy was, ironically, introduced by that seemingly least politically correct of Labour leaders, John Smith, who decided to bow to women in the party and back the proposals to allot half of all safe and winnable seats to women.

The proposal that went before the 1993 party conference was a compromise between opponents of any move artificially to boost the number of Labour women MPs and those who wanted to set an inflexible target of making half of all Labour MPs women within 10 years.