The Liberal Democrats were accused of writing "the second longest suicide note in history" last night when they rejected proposals for all-women shortlists after a heated argument on the conference floor.
Female parliamentarians threatened to boycott photo opportunities which tried to imply that the party was representative of women while others warned that the party was "doomed".
The overwhelming defeat for the motion to introduce positive discrimination in 40 per cent of seats was a bitter blow to leading figures in the party who were worried by their lack of women MPs, with only five in the Commons.
Baroness Williams of Crosby, the deputy leader in the Lords and a former Labour Cabinet minister, warned that the party would look "backward and old-fashioned" by rejecting the shortlists.
But party delegates argued that shortlists were unnecessary and illiberal and passed a wrecking amendment to set targets to boost the number of women candidates.
"I am not a token women," said Lyn-Su Floodgate, of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students Executive. She said she could achieve her ambition to become an MP without the help of positive action.
In a reference to Michael Foot's Labour manifesto in 1983, dubbed the "longest suicide note in history", Baroness Williams warned that "we risk being the party which writes the second longest suicide note in history" by not supporting the proposal.
Jenny Willott, who narrowly lost the Cardiff Central seat in the general election in June, said that next time the party should field candidates who did not look like they came "from a gentlemen's club".
Ms Willott was among a group of senior women politicians to serve notice that they would not co-operate in staged photos to improve the party's image. "I have been on the front of far too many election photos to make the party look more representative," she said.
Sandra Gidley MP, a health spokeswoman, said that she had "encountered unbelievable prejudice for a party that prides itself on complete lack of prejudice". She said that in official party photographs Charles Kennedy was shown with a cluster of women surrounding him, although 47 out of the party's 52 MPs were men.
Baroness Walmsley, Education spokesman in the House of Lords, said that the Liberal Democrats "must change this because the party is doomed if we don't change." She said the party would be seen as "dinosaurs to the outside world" because of their record on the issue. "I am sick and tired of being asked to take part in a cover-up and to stand at the front and being asked to look like three women."
The Liberal Democrats have a lower proportion of women MPs than any main political party. Fewer than 25 per cent of people on the list of approved candidates are women.
"Just leaving things as they are, or just tinkering with our selection rules would be positively dangerous," said Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House, who proposed the motion.Reuse content