Labour bars 14 male conference delegates: Constituencies should have been represented by women

FOURTEEN constituency parties have been banned from attending Labour's annual conference in Blackpool next month after failing to provide a woman delegate to represent them.

The move - part of Labour's drive to ensure women are equally represented at all levels of the party - has highlighted dissent over the introduction of quotas, whose targets include ensuring that half the new candidates for seats that Labour hopes to win at the next general election are women.

With a dozen resolutions on the Blackpool agenda attacking the quota system as inflexible and rigid, senior Labour sources were conceding yesterday that ways to apply the new rules more flexibly to the selection of parliamentary candidates may have to be sought.

Critics say constituencies have already been left with posts and delegations unfilled because they have been unable to find women to fill them. Supporters of the system argue that this only highlights the need to recruit more women. The new system also raises the possibility of the national executive having to impose an all-woman shortlist on a constituency.

Under new Labour rules, constituencies which send only one delegate to the party conference have to send a woman at least every other year. Out of 651 constituencies, 14 who sent a man last year have submitted a male delegate again this year - resulting in their resolutions being struck off the agenda and the party debarred from voting unless a woman delegate is found by the time the conference opens on 3 October.

Constituencies affected include Birmingham Sparkbrook, Birmingham Perry Barr, Southend, Wirral West, Swansea East and Motherwell South.

Motherwell - which had submitted a resolution opposing any imposition of all-women shortlists - has now backed down, with Sally Gibson, a remedial teacher, agreeing to replace the local councillor who was last year's delegate.

She said: 'The rule is too rigid. If I had not been able to go then all the members, men and women, would have been disenfranchised from taking part in any decisions.'

Mrs Gibson, chair of the Strathclyde regional party, said she sympathised with the aims, but added: 'I have never wished to be elected for any position other than on my own merit in fair competition.' Quotas could work against women because 'the public may turn round and ask if they are the best person for the job'.

Jeremy Bray, the Motherwell South MP, said: 'With the employment situation in Motherwell many of the women are the bread- winners in low-paid work from which they can't take time off.'

Many backers of the rule suspect parties could find a woman delegate if they wanted to. Jean Corston, MP for Bristol East and joint chair of the MPs' women's group, said that a handful of constituencies having trouble finding a woman was not a valid reason for dropping the new rule.

Labour, as a political party, is one of the few organisations legally allowed to have quotas. The Equal Opportunities Commission said it was illegal for employers to impose quotas and political parties were the only group exempted under the Sex Discrimination Act.

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