Was it a skirt too far?: A cabal of middle-aged male MPs ambushed Labour's plans to promote women

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IMAGINE the scene. In ones and twos, mostly men of middle years and beyond, they pick up a yellow ballot paper with 44 names on it and scurry off into a corner to copy down their preferences from a grubby crib-sheet. Looking over their shoulders from time to time to make sure no one is watching, they mark 18 crosses.

This was the Parliamentary Labour Party choosing what could become John Smith's first Labour government. Political pundits used to call this 'the most sophisticated electorate in the world'; last week, it was a shambles.

The poll in Committee Room 12 at Westminster was supposed to increase the number of women in the Shadow Cabinet. But the initiative failed; fewer, not more, were elected. Joan Lestor returned to the inner circle, but Ann Clwyd and Harriet Harman were ousted. And in the bars, the party's Horny-Handed Tendency sniggered that the sisters had gone 'a skirt too far'. MPs were not queueing up to be quoted, but one said: 'This was a gesture leading to a cock-up. They were far too ambitious.'

John Smith put a brave front on the reverse, reappointing the two most criticised members of his shadow ministerial team, Ann Taylor at Education and Harriet Harman as chief secretary in the Treasury team, despite the latter's dramatic loss of a seemingly impregnable place on Labour's parliamentary committee. His act of defiance won fresh plaudits for his leadership qualities. But the episode has left a sour taste. Nothing can disguise the fact that the PLP looks a great deal less sophisticated than it did a week ago.

It has been a long road to the latest dismal showing. Three years ago, prompted in part by Neil Kinnock, women Labour MPs pushed for a change in the electoral system. A 'positive-agenda' amendment tabled by Llin Golding, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme (a seat inherited, incidentally, from her trade union leader husband, John), enlarged the Shadow Cabinet from 15 to 18, with the three extra seats

reserved for women. Once Mrs Margaret Beckett was elected deputy leader, traditional male hegemony, many felt, was unquestionably on the slide.

This year, the 37-strong group of Labour women MPs decided to accelerate the process. There was some internal dissension, but they voted to go for a further rule change requiring all 270 PLP members to vote for four women. Despite taproom grumbles about an 'assisted places scheme' - and even 'the tart's charter', the reform was overwhelmingly approved. Subsequently, an open revolt led by John Spellar, the bearded right-wing MP for Warley West, failed spectacularly.

In upbeat mood, Labour's women hoped for an increase to seven in their Shadow Cabinet representation - not far short of half the complement. No fewer than 15 women MPs stood for office. Had the men followed suit in similar proportion, more than 100 would have had to been squeezed on a ballot paper of ludicrous length.

The sheer number of women aspirants gave the male-chauvinist taproom fusiliers a perfect opportunity. They plotted to vote for no-hope candidates, fulfilling the letter of the reform but cynically disregarding its spirit.

So it was that Gwyneth Dunwoody, controversial member for Crewe and Nantwich, and Irene Adams, MP for Paisley North, neither of whom stood last year, garnered 170 votes between them. Mildred Gordon, the veteran hard-left MP for Bow and Poplar, saw her vote practically double to 81.

PLP insiders calculate that there are at least 40 Labour MPs, concentrated largely in Scotland, the North of England and Wales, who cheerfully conspired to do down the women. Not only the lumpen end of the trade was involved. One frontbencher confessed that he had voted only for himself - and four women. The women had been warned. Mrs Golding, originator of the first reforms, thought they should have left well alone. She says: 'I tried to persuade them that there would be a backlash. It was a wrong thing to do. But they went ahead, and made a big song and dance about it.'

Other women MPs demur. Clare Short, back in the Shadow Cabinet, believes that the new system may have had a shaky start, but must be allowed time to work. 'There are men in the PLP who feel very discomfited, who don't like propositions that improve the position of women. That's life. We know that. But we have a good system and I think it's working.'

Not even the men who share her aims are so convinced. Robin Corbett, Labour spokesman on National Heritage issues, now has a new woman boss - Mo Mowlam, MP for Redcar - who was the only existing female member of the Shadow Cabinet to improve her vote in last week's debacle. He argues: 'There will certainly be moves in the PLP now to review the the system. The obvious answer is to reserve four places for women, not to put them into competition with men.'

The discreet massacre in Commitee Room 12 last Wednesday will direct a more powerful spotlight on the problems facing women trying to make their way in the male-dominated world of politics. Labour MPs mutter that some of the women who had struggled into the Shadow Cabinet last year had performed badly on the front bench and on television. 'They only got there because they were women,' complained one typical backbencher over his pint of Federation bitter.

It is inconceivable that he would have suggested that David Clark's underwhelming performance on the Defence brief, or Tom Clarke's year of living quietly as shadow Scottish secretary, should be blamed on the fact that they were men.

Labour's plans for women-only shortlists in some parliamentary constituencies will be the next battleground. The miners' union has already complained that it is 'sexist', but the Equal Opportunities Commission believe it is lawful.

Changing the law may prove quicker than changing attitudes. Even before last week's poll was complete, the joke was already doing the rounds that the first MP to vote was astonished when his paper was pushed back out of the slit in the ballot box.

The voice of that ironclad traditional, Ray Powell, MP for Ogmore in the Welsh valleys, could be heard inside telling him to take it back and do it again. In a political culture like that, it will take more than mechanisms before Labour produces a Mrs Thatcher.

(Photograph omitted)