Tory women call for action to redress gender gap

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William Hague came under pressure from his own ranks to end the bias against females in the Conservatives' candidate selection process yesterday as the party discussed women's issues for the first time at its conference.

William Hague came under pressure from his own ranks to end the bias against females in the Conservatives' candidate selection process yesterday as the party discussed women's issues for the first time at its conference.

Women activists openly called on the Tory leader to introduce positive discrimination to redress the gender balance in the party. So far, for Westminster, the party has selected only two women in its top 20 most winnable seats. No female candidates have been selected in any of the safe seats where a sitting MP is retiring.

Since the last general election, Labour has had 101 women MPs compared with just 14 on the Tory benches. If the Conservatives won 100 of their most winnable seats at the next election, they would increase that number to only 27 women MPs.

Earlier this year, the Conservatives launched Choices, a document outlining the party's agenda for women. However, some of the programme's authors privately admit that the selection of more women candidates remains unlikely until some form of positive action is introduced.

The demands for a fairer selection process follow a pledge at the Labour Party conference last week by Baroness Jay of Paddington, the Cabinet Minister for Women, to legalise all-women shortlists for parliamentary selections.

Melinda Libby, a Tory delegate, said she had spent 10 fruitless years searching for a constituency where she would have a chance of becoming an MP after contesting the safe Labour seat of St Helens North at the 1987 election.

"I understand that there are 19 winnable seats that have so far selected candidates and not one of them has been a woman," she said.

"Something must be done and that something - the bullet that has got to be bitten - has probably got to be some form of positive discrimination."

However, Theresa May, who speaks for the party on women's issues, said women would not welcome such moves. Mrs May said: "Sadly at the moment we have not had a woman selected for a Conservative-held seat. We have had a number of women selected for winnable seats.

"In the Conservative Party we have always taken the view - and women have as well - that they do not want to be selected on the basis of positive discrimination ... I accept that there is a lot of work to do."

Mrs May's tough stance was backed up by party delegates during the debate, who insisted women should be selected on merit alone.

Fiona Guest, from Hemel Hempstead, called for the abolition of women's committees because they were not helping female candidates.

"There are too few Conservative MPs who are women. Women who do not want women to be MPs are turning down women simply because they are women. I know - I have sat on selection committees."

Caroline Spelman, the MP for Meriden, launched a direct appeal to constituencies to select more women. "We are not making enough progress in selecting women. We have to select them, encourage them and vote for them."

Mrs Spelman reminded delegates that the selection process had been changed to place more emphasis on female skills, such as listening. Female contenders were encouraged to watch a video to prepare them for the process, she said.

Tessa Jowell, the women's minister, said a recent pamphlet by the Bow Group had shown that only 1.6 per cent of Tory members under 45 were female. "This age group is important because it is the talent pool from where MPs, councillors and activists are drawn," said Ms Jowell.

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