Labour rebellion threat over all-woman lists

Opposition emerges to system aimed at increasing number of female MPs. Patricia Wynn Davies reports

A potential confrontation is looming between Labour's ruling National Executive Committee and northern constituency parties opposed to all-woman shortlists of parliamentary candidates.

Under Labour's quota system, endorsed at last year's annual conference, party regions must draw up all-woman selection lists in half the seats where a sitting Labour MP retires and in half the winnable marginals.

The Northern & Yorkshire region agreed at a conference in March to all- woman lists in five marginals, but there is intense resistance in the seven seats where Labour MPs are retiring: Barnsley East and Mexborough, Doncaster Central, Bradford West, Wansbeck, Wentworth, Jarrow, and Houghton and Washington.

Under party rules, three, or possibly four, of the constituencies would be expected to endorse an all-woman list.

Bill Winder, chairman of the Wentworth party and mayor of Rotherham, said last night that the constituency had formally told the region that it was opposed to all-woman lists and would not accept one being imposed by the NEC. He insisted: "We believe in the best person for the job, be it man or woman. We believe in the right to choose."

The region plans to renew efforts to win over the constituencies in further rounds of consultation. But a regional office spokesman said: "The feeling, in the North-east in particular, is quite strongly opposed."

There are strong suspicions that women applicants imposed by the NEC would be overwhelmingly London-based and professional.

One party activist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said local people wanted applicants with local connections whereas the kind of potential candidates that could be imposed would either come from Emily's List - the organisation to promote more women Labour MPs - or be "solicitors, barristers or journalists".

Another potential trouble- spot is the North-west, which has agreed to an all-woman list in only one seat, Liverpool Riverside, out of six where Labour MPs are retiring. There is an additional seat in Scotland with a retiring MP, making 14 in total.

Labour's objective is to see between 40 and 50 additional women elected at the next election, bringing the party's parliamentary total to between 80 and 90. The House of Commons currently includes just 62 women MPs of all parties in a total of 651. So far, 17 women have been selected from all-woman lists.

Some activists in the North-west have suggested that the policy only commits the region to a "target" of 50 per cent all-woman lists, that it could choose the mechanism to attempt to meet it, and that distribution of seats was ultimately an issue to be viewed nationally.

Their interpretation was contradicted by a spokeswoman at Labour Party HQ in Walworth Road, south London. A spokeswoman said the aim was to ensure an even spread of all-woman lists in each region and among "bands" of marginality.

The NEC will review compliance with the policy at its monthly meeting on Wednesday.

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