Michael Brown: Women are making the difference for the Tories

Any worries I had of tokenism were dispelled by my experience in West Worcestershire
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The Independent Online

In 1997, Tony Blair's New Labour appeal was centred on "Mondeo man" and "Worcester woman". But, as from last Saturday, Worcestershire Woman is now a prospective Conservative MP, and at the next general election she will probably be arriving in the House of Commons, in the shape of Harriet Baldwin.

David Cameron's new Tory "A-list" of women candidates looks as though, after a shaky start, they are finally making the breakthrough at selection committees. On the same day, Karen Bradley was selected for the new, notionally Tory Staffordshire Moorlands constituency; and yesterday, Anna Soubry was chosen for marginal Broxtowe. Suddenly the proportion of women selected for safe and winnable seats has risen to one third: 12 out of 36.

And for the past fortnight I have had my own small walk-on part in Mr Cameron's quiet revolution, acting as the interlocutor at the general meetings of the Daventry and West Worcestershire Conservative Associations, where they have been making their final choices of parliamentary candidate to represent what should be solid Tory majorities after the election in 2009 or 2010.

Daventry had no choice but to select a man, since the final short-list did not include any women. In that sense, Mr Cameron could be said to have failed by not biting the bullet and requiring some associations to devise all-women short-lists as New Labour did a decade ago. But I just do not think that the autonomous nature of local Conservative Party associations would have tolerated such central control of selection procedures as those adopted by New Labour.

The new procedures the Tories have introduced, however, provide for a far more exhaustive examination of the credentials of individual candidates than before. And last Saturday, in West Worcestershire, where the 1922 Committee chairman, Sir Michael Spicer, is retiring, they also enabled two articulate women to be treated more equally when they succeeded in reaching the final interview. Gone are the old-fashioned "hang 'em, flog 'em, get out of Europe" rants that enabled right-wing, thirtysomething male orators to compete by whipping up the audience into a blood-curdling frenzy of applause.

The new final procedure usually involves a journalist or broadcaster interrogating three candidates in front of the whole constituency party membership, much in the way they would experience in a TV studio. I may have been no Jeremy Paxman but neither, thought the candidates, was I a pushover. I posed all the conundrums to which I had been subjected by constituents when I was in Parliament. Watching each make a choice when confronted with a conflict of interest between the needs of their constituents and the promises in their party manifestos gave members a better view of the extent to which they were being presented with a climber of the greasy pole or a freer local spirit.

The questioning format, subsequently opened to the audience for a further 20-minute session, made sure that the local party had a sense of how the candidates would go about the business of meeting the immediate threat of a Lib Dem challenge. Although the seat has always been Tory, the majority of 2,475 leaves no room for complacency. Ms Baldwin, a banker who works for JP Morgan, faced stiff competition from Margot James, a successful businesswoman who fought Frank Dobson in London last year, and Andrew Griffiths, who fought Dudley in 2001 and is now chief of staff to Hugo Swire, a member of the Shadow Cabinet.

But Ms Baldwin managed to get over to the audience - the typical profile of Tory membership - that it was the perception of her candidacy through the eyes of voters, not necessarily yet Tory and not in that room, that would matter most. So often in recent times selection panels have chosen candidates that they have liked without regard to what might be more acceptable to the wider electorate. This is the concern that most bothers Mr Cameron and which has led to the new procedural experiment.

Any early worries that I and others might have had about tokenism were certainly dispelled by my experience in West Worcestershire. These women are organised, terrifyingly competent (as Ms Baldwin was described by one national newspaper), and pose a serious threat to Blair's babes.

In the end gender alone will not swing an election but, win or lose, the Tories may certainly look very different when they take their seats in the Commons after the next election. Whether they will sound different, notwithstanding Mr Cameron's recent "hug a hoodie" speech, still depends upon the policy reviews due next year.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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