Labour moves to defuse row over women's quotas

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TONY BLAIR yesterday moved to defuse a growing row over the Labour Party's quotas for women. He let it be known that rules aimed at ensuring that women fight half of the seats where sitting MPs retire, and half of the 'winnable' marginals, should be interpreted 'flexibly' and 'with sensitivity'.

At the same time the Labour leader asked party headquarters to look again at rulings that have debarred 14 constituencies from attending the party conference next month because they have failed to find a female delegate to send.

All 14 were yesterday invited to appeal to the conference arrangements committee on Monday. Sources close to Mr Blair said the appeals should be allowed provided there had been all reasonable efforts to comply with the rule, which says that where a constituency sends only one delegate it must be, at least every other year, a woman.

More importantly, given the dozen resolutions tabled for next month's party conference attacking the rigidities of the quota system, Mr Blair attempted to head off likely disputes over rules intended to ensure that women form half of the new candidates in winnable seats. The Labour leader was said to remain committed to the target and was determined to see women's representation in Parliament rise. But it was being emphasised that the 50 per cent rule was 'a target' not a requirement, and the rules would be interpreted 'flexibly and sensitively'.

If insufficient constituencies volunteer to have all- women shortlists, the national executive now has the power to impose them. But it was being underlined that the National Executive Committee's powers were 'discretionary' not mandatory - and the Labour leader was said to be confident progress would be made by consensus without the use of draconian powers. Where a constituency had a well-established heir apparent or obvious local candidate who happened to be a man that would be 'looked at sympathetically', senior sources indicated.

However, Jean Corston, co-chair of the Labour women MPs' group, warned that too much emphasis on flexibility 'will give the green light to people to say 'no', stick it out and get away with it'.

Mr Blair's approach in practice can be seen in the South-west, the only region so far to decide which seats would have women-only shortlists.

Of the nine covered by the rules, four have volunteered to go women-only and a senior Labour source said yesterday that pressure would not be applied to find a fifth constituency.