Tories face call for positive discrimination

Michael Howard came under pressure from a leading female Tory MP yesterday to change the selection rules in order to boost the number of women in Parliament.

Michael Howard came under pressure from a leading female Tory MP yesterday to change the selection rules in order to boost the number of women in Parliament.

In a week overshadowed by accusations that the Conservative Party is sexist, Julie Kirkbride, a former frontbench spokeswoman, has warned Mr Howard that "positive discrimination" is now vital to get more Tory women elected.

There are now only 14 women among the 163 MPs on the Tory benches and only five are believed to have been selected to fight the top 50 target seats at the next election.

The Fawcett Society yesterday said the Conservative Party had a dismal record and pointed out that Virginia Bottomley, Gillian Shephard and Marion Roe, who are retiring from Parliament at the next election, have already been replaced by male candidates.

But with only 114 women in Parliament - 94 of them on the Labour benches - out of 659 MPs, it is not only the Tories who are on the defensive. The Liberal Democrats, who currently have only six women MPs, are also under pressure to improve their embarrassing record and restore their reputation as the party of equality.

Earlier this week, the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate Sue Catling was deselected in the Yorkshire seat of Calder Valley, despite halving Labour's majority at the last election.

Mrs Catling, an award-winning businesswomen, believes there is a problem of "inherent" sexism in the party and said many Tories were out of touch with the modern world.

She said she wanted to see a "change to the rules" on selecting women to prevent local associations from bullying female candidates and to ensure more are chosen in the first place. She said: "We need more women in Parliament. We know that voters want to vote for a woman, so I will never be happy until I see about equal numbers in Parliament."

Ms Catling's sacking came shortly after Amanda Harland, a female candidate in the neighbouring seat, quit after allegedly being bullied by Tory association members.

Yesterday Ms Kirkbride, MP for Bromsgrove, called on Mr Howard to introduce affirmative action for women candidates to balance the numbers.

Ms Kirkbride, who resigned from the Conservative front bench, said: "We may need to discriminate in favour of women candidates who are every bit as good as the men but happen to be selected less often. It is vital that we have more women on our benches."

The Liberal Democrats are believed to be selecting about 10 more female candidates to fight for seats at the next election.

Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat MP who won the Labour seat of Brent East in a by-election upset in 2003, acknowledged there was a problem with lack of women MPs but said "huge strides" had been made.

She said: "There's an awful lot work to do and you wouldn't find anyone in the party who wouldn't acknowledge that."

HEADING FOR PARLIAMENT?

Penny Mordaunt, 31, a PR executive who used to be the director of communications at the true blue borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is fighting for the Labour seat of Portsmouth North, where she is confident of overturning a 5,000 Labour majority. She says all-women short lists produce MPs who "will always be seen as second rate".

Theresa Villiers is only 36 but she has already been an MEP for London for five years. The Tory front bench has high hopes for the former barrister, who is fighting for the Conservative seat of Chipping Barnet, which is being vacated by the veteran MP Sir Sydney Chapman. One of the most highly rated women in the party, she is expected to be promoted to the front bench quickly should she be elected an MP.

Justine Greening was born in Rotherham in 1969, attended a comprehensive then took business and economics. She wants to unseat the Labour MP in Putney who has a majority of 2,700, and is seen as a Tory who could win floating voters. She is campaigning against low-level crime and noise from Heathrow night flights.

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