Now that's what I call equality of opportunity

The Noah's Ark principle Labour is using to select candidates for the Scottish Parliament could transform British politics

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AT LONG last someone's noticed. And Scotswomen have the much-maligned Derry Irvine to thank.

Before the headline grabbing Lord Chancellor's leaked memo this week few realised Scottish Labour are about to do something revolutionary about gender balance at the ballot box ... fewer understood it and even fewer cored.

In fact twinning - or pairing as Labour describe it to avoid association with junketing councils - could transform UK politics. And a change of that magnitude shouldn't emerge surreptitiously as part of a grudging deal with the Monstrous Regiment - it should be debated and won. Until Derry's leaked memo that was looking unlikely.

Somehow it's okay to give schools exam targets. okay to have the army target black recruits. okay for Oxbridge colleges to target comprehensive pupils, but not okay to force the pace of change for women where it really matters ... at the heart of public policy making. The last time gender balance hit the headlines was 1994 when the Jebson industrial tribunal ruled Labour's women-only shortlists illegal - a breach of the Sex Discrimination Act and unfair to men. Labour decided not to appeal, and the mechanism was scrapped, though not before it delivered the bulk of Labour's successful female candidates for the 1997 general election. The aggrieved Mr Jebson disappeared without trace.

Twinning doesn't mean positive discrimination for women - it delivers fairness for both sexes. Working on the Noah's Ark principle, the 72 Scottish constituencies are paired - by location and winnability. So for example Dunfermline West and Dunfermline East will have one joint selection procedure from which two people will be chosen - the most popular male and female candidates. It's as simple as that. Despite the Lord Irvine row there is absolutely no doubt the Scottish Labour Party will go ahead with twinning. The only unresolved detail is how the successful man and woman decide who gets which seat.

Twinning gives both sexes an equal chance everywhere, which means a disgruntled man would have a hard time proving discrimination in the courts. He would have to prove two things - that he was a better candidate for the job and that being a candidate is the same as having a job in the first place.

Why then all the fuss this week about the threat of legal challenge?

To an extent Labour is reaping the harvest it sowed when it failed to appeal against the earlier Jebson ruling.

Public opinion is still suspicious of positive discrimination in the workplace. British law, almost alone in Europe, does not allow it. Until recently that hostility was mirrored at the European Court of Justice. But last year it ruled laws correcting historic inequalities between the sexes didn't infringe its Equal Treatment Directive. The Treaty of Amsterdam, signed by Britain, also contains a clause permitting positive action. In short Britain is out of step. Almost every other developed country in the world has more women in government - almost all have used mechanisms to achieve that.

Every elite thinks it has the intelligence and sense of fairness not to clone itself - but without a conscious effort every elite does just that. And eventually the lack of diverse thought and experience stifles creativity and renders even well meaning policies impracticable. Scotland is going to have a new parliament - a fresh start. Once MPs have been chosen it will be very difficult to challenge them. Consider a minute. This powerful and non U-turn prone government has been forced to consider amending the Sex Discrimination Act to try to prevent another hostile and doubtless career-ending legal challenge from an angry man. Does anyone really believe such men will meekly make way for women on a voluntary basis?

For those who complain that 101 Labour women haven't exactly transformed the Commons into a feminist Nirvana, that's true. And the only answer is more women. Evidence from Scandinavia suggests male belief systems aren't even challenged until at least a third of the legislation are female.

Scotland can transform its Rab C Nesbitt image in 1999 by raising the public status of women. If it doesn't, many Scots will conclude they've been sold a pup.

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