Labour turns to BBC stars in new fight for rights of older women

A commission will propose ways to prevent discrimination against over-50s

Labour is setting up a commission led by Miriam O'Reilly, the former Countryfile presenter, and Arlene Phillips, the former Strictly Come Dancing judge, to tackle discrimination against women over the age of 50, The Independent can reveal.

The team will draw up proposals to try to prevent ageism and sexism, the "double discrimination" against older women, as the party seeks to woo the female over-50s vote which makes up almost a quarter of the electorate.

The Labour Commission on Women will consider whether legislation is needed and will call upon the experiences of the two TV personalities, who were famously dropped by the BBC.

In interview with The Independent, Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, said all options would be considered as it helped to draw up policies for the party's election manifesto. "This is a systemic issue," she said. "Of course there is age discrimination against men. But the combination of age and gender discrimination against women is of a different order of magnitude."

She launched a scathing attack on George Entwistle, the BBC's new Director General, for his "woeful" response to criticism that the Corporation freezes out older women while keeping older men on its screens.

Ms Harman declared: "Basically, he said 'We have got to reach out and find these [older] women'. In fact, they are right there under his nose but they are being got rid of. He was saying, 'We can't start chucking out the older men'. Miriam [O'Reilly] was told to devise her own programme and then she could be on it. He needs to wake up right away and realise that women will not tolerate that any more. We need action, not pitiful excuses. He is still stuck in the old mould that the older man, the experienced, wise sage, has to be matched [on screen] by the younger woman."

After the BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce admitted she dyed her hair so as not to show any grey, Ms Harman added: "Women on TV feel that the clock is ticking for them in a way it is not for older men."

She said the treatment of Ms O'Reilly and Ms Phillips, pictured, had "touched a nerve" for tens or even hundreds of thousands of women who had suffered similar discrimination.

She declared: "They are not going to accept that any more. It [the campaign] is going to be quite militant. It will be a very big powerful movement. It will move beyond general anger to an insistence on change."

Ms O'Reilly, who won an age discrimination case against the BBC, will chair a discussion at Labour's national women's conference in Manchester today. The commission, chaired by Ms Harman, will investigate the position of women over 50 as carers, in the world of work and in public life.

Ms Harman insisted Labour's move is not "a cynical electoral exercise". But it could pay political dividends. As the baby-boomers approach pension age, the 11.3 million women over 50 represent 24 per cent of the electorate. At the 2010 election, the Conservatives enjoyed a big lead among women aged 55 and over, winning 42 per cent of their votes to Labour's 31 per cent and the Liberal Democrats' 21 per cent. But some recent opinion polls suggest David Cameron and his party have lost ground among women.

Mr Entwistle said this month that he wanted to see more female presenters and guests on news and current affairs programmes but would not set targets.

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