Omov birth gives Labour pains: Party's brave new selection system sparks by-election furore

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The Independent Online
AT TWO O'CLOCK this afternoon, when most sensible folk are sitting down to their Yorkshire pudding, the Labour Party is staging a two-hour brains trust in a draughty hall in Rotherham. The Omov extravaganza has finally arrived.

So far, it plays more like farce than documentary drama. Labour's first outing for its 'one member, one vote' procedure for choosing parliamentary candidates has split the party down the middle, upset feminists and infuriated local activists.

Today's gathering will bring together the 300 paid-up members of the Rotherham party 'selectorate' and the six candidates shortlisted by the national executive last Wednesday for the by-election caused by the death of the popular left-winger Jimmy Boyce. Each of the candidates - four men, two women - will have 10 minutes to speak, and the same time for questions. But before the cast has even assembled, the show is attracting critical notices. 'Labour Pains,' shrieked the Rotherham Advertiser. 'Row over selection of Labour candidate,' said the Rotherham Star.

Labour's national executive is accused of arrogance in excluding from the shortlist the local favourite, engineer Peter Thirlwall, who had amassed more nominations than anyone else. There is also anger that Barbara Boyce, widow of the MP who died last month while waiting for a heart transplant, could inherit her late husband's 17,561 majority over the Tories in a three-cornered fight. And feminists are enraged that Labour's declared policy of reserving half its safe or marginal seats for women seems to have been ignored.

Fifty hopefuls entered the race for the rock-solid seat. Fifteen made it to the long shortlist interviewed by Walworth Road's by-election gurus. Five were women. Only two survived, though enough able women applied to have justified an all-women shortlist.

Apart from Mrs Boyce, a college lecturer who announced her candidature on prime-time television two weeks after her husband's death, the aspiring candidates are: Denis MacShane, media officer for the International Metalworkers' Federation based in Geneva, whose gourmet tastes would not easily be satisfied in the steel town; Julie Owens, a negotiations officer for the civil service union NUCPS; Navir Ahmed, a Kashmir-born fish-and-chip shop proprietor and local councillor; Hedley Salt, Labour leader of Barnsley council and leading spokesman for the Coalfield Communities Campaign; and Colin Burgon, a Leeds comprehensive school teacher, who failed to win the mining-cum- rural Yorkshire marginal of Elmet at the last election. One way and another, an average cross-section of the party.

It's not the only thing that is cross. Ron Rose, playwright and scriptwriter for The Bill, who is a local party member, accuses Walworth Road of 'the worst kind of arrogance'.

'It's incredible that they could be so crude and insensitive,' he said.

Mr Rose, whose mini-series Love and Reason, screened on BBC 2 last autumn, portrayed a woman wresting a safe Labour seat from the mineworkers' mafia, snorts: 'If I were asked to write a play about this, it would be a political farce. You would have to do it in the theatre, because nobody would believe it on television, not even if you cast Rik Mayall.'

With the man preferred by the local party activists safely out of the way, the outcome of the first Omov poll is anybody's guess, though Mrs Boyce, who married the late MP shortly before the 1992 election, must start as front-runner.

Like the other candidates, she is forbidden by Labour's by- election Code of Conduct from speaking to the press. Other women members of the party feel no constraints in bitching about her, often in language too robust for a family newspaper. 'A chancer' was about the least offensive comment. 'They are not going to get a good result,' said one woman. 'People are offended. They are saying 'bugger it, I will not vote'.'

Iris Furnell, women's officer for the constituency, will certainly not be voting for her bereaved political sister. 'This is the first outing of the new party policy of one member, one vote, but it can only work if we are allowed the choice to vote for the candidates we want to vote for,' she argues.

The local party tried to have Mr Thirlwall - who was nominated by five of its eight wards, five trade unions and the Trades and Labour Club - restored to the shortlist, but was told curtly that it could not be done. The result of the ballot will be announced on Tuesday evening.

The man charged with declaring the outcome, constituency secretary Maurice Kirk, is understandably apprehensive: 'There is certainly some uneasiness. That is putting it mildly. It's a mish-mash. But at the end of the day I hope peope will use common sense and vote.'

It will certainly be more orderly than the scenes in Love and Reason, which degenerated into violence - most notably when the beautiful-but-tough heroine Lou Larson hitched up her tight skirt and kneed a burly miner in the - er, in the roadway outside a working man's club.

But life is imitating art to the extent that a woman is trying to succeed in the macho- male stronghold of Rotherham, a heavy-industry town battered by the recession. Jimmy Boyce was 'one of the lads', who liked fishing, football and bending his elbow. At present, the smart money is on his widow, though she seems to have cornered the lack-of-sympathy vote.

Ms Owens, who contested Peterborough at the last election, is likely to take votes from activists disgruntled by Walworth Road's handling of the affair. Omov - The Stage Version may yet make good theatre. But is it good politics?