Labour to set quotas for women: Executive to vote on move that could ensure 80 female MPs after next election

LABOUR is set to back regional quotas of all-women shortlists of parliamentary candidates that could ensure 80 women MPs after the next election.

Under the scheme, to be voted on by the National Executive Committee when it meets today, constituency parties and seven regional offices would agree on the allocation to women of half the seats in three categories - winnable, including marginals, Labour-held and safe Tory.

The proposals have the support of John Smith, the Labour leader, and of many shadow ministers and MPs who are concerned that while there are only 37 women in the 270-strong Parliamentary party, only 20 to 30 Labour seats will become vacant through retirements or by-elections.

But while party sources were keen to emphasise a widespread will to see the scheme succeed, its reliance on consensus could prove contentious. If regions and constituencies are unable to agree quota seats, the executive committee will have power to impose a list.

The prospect of disagreement will play into the hands of male MPs who argue that such positive action infringes constituency Labour Party independence. The paper drawn up by Clare Short, the Labour MP who chairs the national executive's women's committee, contains no formal provision for an appeal against a committee ruling.

The proposals will have to be endorsed by the autumn conference, but conference agreed as long ago as 1990 on a target of 50-50 representation between men and women by 2000.

Under current rules a 'statutory' woman is already included on parliamentary shortlists. It has produced few women candidates to fight winnable seats and is the object of derision.

Labour badly needs to restore its equality credentials after last week's 50- 43 vote by the Parliamentary party to throw out the PLP review group's second report on modernising working practices at Westminster and increasing women in the Shadow Cabinet, dubbed the 'assisted places scheme' in some quarters. The review group was set to agree last night to press for each section of the report to be voted on separately after an angry Mr Smith called for it to be brought back piecemeal.

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