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Labour in Blackpool: NEC tries to quell opposition to single-sex candidate lists: Nicholas Timmins finds unease over a policy aimed at raising the number of women MPs

LABOUR'S national executive yesterday declared its policy of all-women short lists for parliamentary candidates to be 'essential' to increase the number of women MPs.

But in an attempt to head off the outside chance of a defeat on the issue this week, the NEC said the policy would be applied with 'flexibility and sensitivity'.

The move came as the women's quota system came under fire from both sexes at a fringe meeting ahead of a conference debate. One man who fought a seat for Labour at the last election said that he felt he had been 'banned' from active politics.

The quota system provides that women must fight half the seats where a Labour MP retires and half the 'winnable' seats. To do that, consitituencies are being asked to volunteer to have all-women short lists, with the national executive having powers to impose such a short list if too few constituencies in any given region refuse.

Patrick Hall, 42, a Bedfordshire county councillor who fought Bedfordshire North for Labour in 1992 and hopes to contest the newly created marginal of Bedford, said quotas had to be fair to men. 'No one quarrels with the aim of a fifty-fifty split among Labour MPs,' he said.

But if his constituency had a women-only short list 'that is banning me from participating in any area where I am a local councillor and I have lived and worked all my life'.

He challenged the view that quotas were the only way to achieve the change, saying that in his ward three of the four councillors were women because women had been encouraged to stand. He accused backers of the quota system of using 'a strong element of moral blackmail' in their campaign.

Nicola Kutapan, a TGWU member and Labour candidate in 1992 who is co-convenor of the anti-quota pressure group Labour Supporters for Real Equality, said she had faced 'vindictive and personal criticism' for opposing quotas.

Most members of the pressure group were women, she said, and the last thing Labour needed was a damaging round of selection disputes. Quotas dealt with one inequality by creating another - unequal treatment of men - and opened successful women to Tory attacks that they had been chosen only because of their sex while barring good local men, she added.

She quoted the Labour MP Dawn Primarolo, a candidate for the party's national executive, as saying that all that women were seeking was 'a level playing field'. That, she said, was untrue: 'You are not asking for a level playing field, you are asking for special favours.'

Backers of the quota system, however, seem confident it will survive this week's conference, the national executive noting that in the South-west four out of the nine seats affected have agreed to all women short lists - a total being interpreted as 50 per cent.

The conference is being asked to reaffirm its target of raising women's representation in Parliament 'through flexibility and sensitivity, using the agreed system of regional consensus, and is confident that we will achieve these aims'.