Labour split by women's issues: Divisions threaten progress on reforms

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WOMEN Labour MPs are likely to more than double at the next election after a unanimous decision by the party's ruling body yesterday. But the National Executive Committee's backing for regional quotas of all-women candidates' shortlists coincided with a deepening divide within the Parliamentary Labour Party over raising women's representation in the Shadow Cabinet.

The divisions are threatening progress on further reforms.

Subject to formal endorsement by the autumn conference, under the scheme approved yesterday half of all constituencies where a sitting Labour MP is retiring, or where Labour believes that it can win, will be asked to draw up women-only shortlists.

But MPs in the parliamentary party are still at loggerheads over changes in the PLP review group's second report aimed at modernising Westminster working practices, and including a rule increasing from three to four the minimum number of women candidates MPs would have to vote for in annual Shadow Cabinet elections.

In what was widely seen as an anti-women move, the report was thrown out in its entirety last week, although some MPs voted against it over its provision, after an amendment, for the election of the three party whips. That change was viewed by 'reformist' MPs as horrendous, serving, one said yesterday, to worsen existing 'cronyism and patronage' in the party.

Jack Straw, the environment spokesman who helped vote down the report, has tabled a motion calling for the creation of a new women's section of the Shadow Cabinet.

Women MPs who are increasingly sickened by a whispering campaign over the performance of the Shadow Cabinet, and male reformists, will strongly oppose it, arguing that it would 'ghettoise' and marginalise women and be used to keep their numbers down.

The Shadow Cabinet decided last night to seek PLP support at its meeting next Wednesday for each section of the report to be voted on separately. John Smith, the party leader, wants the row to be resolved this session but that may prove difficult.

If it is not, discussion of a third review group report into the role of the PLP, and whether it campaigns effectively, will be delayed. That report also seeks to cut the current 70-plus front bench, and the accompanying risk of patronage, to about 30 to 40 permanent members, supplemented by 'guesting' by backbenchers to give them front bench experience.