'Machismo' blamed for failure to pick women

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Indy Politics

A damning portrait of the macho male culture in the Labour Party that prevents female candidates being selected for winnable Commons seats has emerged in a new study.

The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for more women in Parliament, has conducted an inquiry into why the ground-breaking advance made by Labour at the 1997 general election was not maintained at last year's poll. The society conducted extensive interviews with women rejected by Labour selection committees.

Their allegations of sexual harassment, patronising comments and the corrupt use of postal votes will embarrass Labour's Millbank headquarters, which outlined plans yesterday to boost the number of female and ethnic-minority candidates in its heartlands at the next election. Labour will ask local parties in Scotland, Wales and the North-east to volunteer to select female candidates. If there is a poor response, Labour HQ will impose all-female shortlists to ensure more women become MPs at the next election.

Charles Clarke, the Labour chairman, admitted Labour also needed to ensure it had more black candidates but ruled out quotas or "all-black" shortlists. He said: "We have done significantly better than other parties but to be frank we represent more areas of the country where ethnic minorities live and therefore there is a particular responsibility to put that right."

According to the Fawcett Society report, one woman was told by a member of a Labour selection committee: "We do enjoy watching you speak, we always imagine what your knickers are like. We picture you in your underwear when you are speaking." Two potential female candidates were told: "Your children are better off with you at home."

When another hopeful suggested she might attend a regional women's conference, she was told: "You don't want to go down there: they are all lesbians." Many women complained about a bias towards male candidates among the trade unions. "All the unions had their top, number one candidate – they weren't women," one woman reported.

According to the report, to be published this spring, these "favoured sons" were given special help, such as early access to constituency membership lists so they could contact members before rival candidates. Some of these men had worked for the party or No 10.

The favoured sons also had financial help, especially from the unions. "Some people will be spending £800 on a glossy leaflet, whereas I would be spending £11 printing it myself ... you automatically preclude those mothers who are at home, who just don't have the money to pay for the child care, the petrol, the stationery, the £500 in stamps ... to leaflet." One woman complained that men consistently broke rules on postal votes when local party members choose candidates, for example, by filling in ballot papers for elderly members.

The report concludes: "UK political parties are notoriously inhospitable to women. Culturally they are excessively masculine."

In 1997, Labour selected women in 11 of the 34 safe seats that became vacant and the number of female Labour MPs rose to a record 101. Before last year's election, women secured only four of the 37 safe vacant seats and the number of female Labour MPs fell to 94.