Labour, with its commitment to equality, has tried hard to correct this imbalance. But by 1993, it was clear that something had to be done to speed up the snail's pace of progress. Almost half a century of persuasion, exhortation and tokenism had produced just 37 Labour women MPs - only 18 more than there were in 1945. In an historic rule change, the party's annual conference agreed that parliamentary candidates should be selected from all-women shortlists in 50 per cent of its vacant and winnable seats.
By my calculations this means that about 41 of Labour's 651 constituency parties will select candidates from all-women shortlists. When Labour wins the election these women will become MPs. Add to them the existing 39 and the parliamentary party will consist of 80 women and 246 men. Still far short of half. So why all the hullabaloo?
The short answer is jobs. If 41 constituencies agree to adopt all-women shortlists a few men are going to be disappointed. However, men will still be able to come through, but they, like thousands of women before them, can no longer take selection for granted.
Some opponents of all-women shortlists claim that they will benefit only middle-class women. In parliamentary selection, as in far too many other areas of life, the middle class benefit disproportionately because they have the resources to make the system work in their favour. However, this is an argument for increasing the resources available to working-class women, not an argument against quotas.
All-women shortlists mean more Labour women candidates and more Labour women candidates are good electoral news. Although voters say that, in principle, the gender of the candidate has no effect on their voting intentions, in practice it does appear to do so. In 1992 the swing to Labour in all key seats was 3.6 per cent, but in the seats contested by women it was 4 per cent. There is also some evidence to suggest that women are more likely to turn out to vote if the candidate is female. With the Tories having a 10-point lead among women voters at the last general election, Labour is going to need every woman candidate it can get.
No one wants quotas. But the pres- ent system is not producing the women our parliament needs to make it truly democratic.
The writer is Labour's prospective parliamentary candidate for Stevenage and founder of Emily's List UK.Reuse content