The Liberal Democrats will miss their target to boost the number of female MPs at the next election, with leading figures warning that the party is set for embarrassment over the issue.
Targets to select more women for winnable seats at Westminster and to achieve a big increase in women on the candidates' list will not be met until "after the next general election", an official report says.
This has prompted leading Liberal Democrat women to call for positive discrimination. The party has six women MPs, including the newly elected MP for Brent East, Sarah Teather.
Baroness Williams of Crosby, Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords, warned that the party was going to look very old fashioned compared with the Labour benches.
"The numbers are dismal and they are not getting better," she said. Lady Williams was also disappointed the party had abolished a system of "zipping'' for European Parliamentary seats. This meant at the latest election there was one woman for every man on the candidates' list in each area.
At the 2001 conference a call for positive discrimination for women was rejected, after a fierce debate. Lady Williams warned that the party was writing "the second longest suicide note in history".
The party has missed its target to get 500 women on the official candidates' list - it has 190 - and has also failed to get 40 per cent of target seats filled by women. Liberal Democrat women occupy only 22 per cent of the most winnable seats
The annual report of the gender balance taskforce, set up to boost women's representation, admitted: "We cannot expect to achieve the objectives set out by the 2001 conference motion until after the next general election."
The issue has split the party, with many younger women claiming they do not need affirmative action to help them.
Julia Gash, who owns a shop selling sex toys, has been selected as a European Parliamentary candidate in a winnable seat in Yorkshire. She said women should be encouraged to put themselves forward and needed tips on how to present themselves.
"Some candidates dress in very heavy serious suits and ... look as though they want to look like one of the boys."
Sandra Gidley MP, who chairs the gender balance taskforce, favours positive discrim-ination. Shesaid the current strategy would not "deliver us a single extra woman at the next general election".
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