The Labour Party in Blackpool: Women-only shortlists aim to solve the gender problem: Despite specific policies, female support is still low and there is a demand for more women MPs. Patricia Wynn Davies reports

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DERISION was heaped upon the name of John Spellar, Labour MP for Warley West, at a Labour Women's Action Committee fringe meeting yesterday in the run-up to today's debate on a motion calling for women-only shortlists in Labour-held parliamentary seats. In a letter to a newspaper, Mr Spellar described the motion, to be put by Preston party delegate Valerie Wise, as 'this current fad'.

Such wrangles should not obscure the fact that at the last election, the party failed spectacularly to attract women voters, in spite of a plethora of policies on child care and working patterns.

Later, on the subject of the current norm of 'one woman only on the shortlist' - often the weakest possible candidate - one speaker told the meeting: 'I sometimes think we forget the . . . hatred . . . a pure malice against us.' Someone else murmured, 'yes, it's hatred . . .'.

The change to be urged today by Ms Wise, daughter of Audrey Wise, MP for Preston, will doubtless provoke more of the same.

Flowing from a perceived lack of action on the part of the national executive committee to introduce a phased programme over the next 10 years to ensure at least half of the Parliamentary Labour Party are women, it proposes mandatory women-only shortlists wherever a Labour-held seat becomes vacant until such time as that aim, endorsed by conference two years ago, is met.

The PLP numbers 35 women and 236 men, but the supporters of radical change insist it is not just a question of numbers. Vast numbers of women voters did not associate woman-friendly policies with Labour at the election, when the Tories showed a 14 per cent lead in the 35-54 age group.

Now the party is desperately preoccupied with the 'gender problem'. Margaret Beckett, who coined the expression, thinks it must be to do with Labour's 'macho' image, but some women activists see the high command as indulging in little more than wishful thinking to put it right.

As Dawn Primarolo, the recently-promoted front bench health spokeswoman, puts it: 'You don't attract votes by simply saying we're in favour of doing things for women.'

Audrey Wise, president of Usdaw, the shop workers' union, two-thirds of whose members are low-paid women, believes the policy for a Ministry for Women is now under attack. 'We are told it's just structures', she says - just like the Government or, for that matter, the NEC. 'But if it's done properly, the women's ministry can help to make the policies we painfully get accepted become reality.'

Mo Mowlam, Labour's spokeswoman on women, says the policy is not under attack, though she reserves the right to review in the longer term whether it is the right way of monitoring progress.

'If it takes a women's ministry to keep people remembering we've got it, then we haven't changed the party sufficiently to win the women's vote,' she says.

She will not be voting in favour of today's motion. 'That will cause strife in the party. We have to go as fast as the party can stand and we are already straining some in the party's views.'

Why did not Tony Blair, then the employment spokesman, put the case for the national minimum wage during the election from the women's point of view, Diane Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, asked yesterday's meeting.

'His stock defence was to play the European card, that most other countries have one. What about the thousands of women who leave their homes at two or three in the morning to clean offices for the kind of wage Tony Blair spends on a lunch with a journalist?'