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banner Monday, 24 September, 2001, 19:45 GMT 20:45 UK
Women must use 'bore' tactics
Women must be ready to be complete bores in their struggle to equal representation in Parliament, Labour MP and former women's minister Joan Ruddock told the Fawcett Society's Liberal Democrat conference fringe meeting.

With the government pledged to pass legislation allowing all women shortlists to select parliamentary candidates, the issue promised to produce heated debate among the Lib Dems on Wednesday.

It will take 30 years at the current rate of returning women to Parliament to get parity

Joan Ruddock
Labour MP

Delegates at this cross-party fringe meeting on Monday were predicting "antagonism" at that debate, which includes proposals for only women candidates to be chosen when MPs retire from Lib Dem-held seats.

Ms Ruddock said only mechanisms to counter the low female representation in the Commons - only 10% of Lib Dem MPs are women - could counter the entrenched discrimination and move towards the goal of parity between the sexes in the Commons.

Culture shift

While it was important to shift the culture problem, in the meantime women, constituents and all the parties were missing out on talent.

The government had already prepared the new legislation, said Ms Ruddock, who stressed the importance of it being introduced in the Commons before Christmas to ensure the new procedures can be used to choose candidates for the next general election.

Labour used all-women lists before the 1997 general election but they later fell foul of an employment tribunal ruling.

A more aggressive response to the familiar objections to change was suggested by Rosemary Pockley, former chairwoman of the Conservative National Women's Council.

To laughs and cheers, she said: "The women should be selected on merit argument drives me mad.

Feeling the needle

"I feel like taking a very long, thin needle to the Conservative Party conference and the first person who stops me and uses that argument - I shall stick it up them!"

She accused Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith of sending out mixed messages on the issue and of being "insulting" in his criticism of Labour MPs chosen through positive discrimination.

Ms Pockley argued making changes boosted electoral prospects too, noting that younger women voters "sensed the sour male misogyny and deserted us in droves".

Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, the party's spokesman on women's issues, attacked the "denigration" of the Labour's 1997 female intake as "Blair's babes" - "Charlie's Angels" appears to be the equivalent term for the Lib Dems.

He said the party had to be careful in not being seen to support the legislation allowing parties to use all-women shortlists "but not for ourselves".

Local obsession

Highlighting what could prove a flashpoint on Wednesday, Dr Harris warned that the "over-obsession" with local candidates often discriminated against women.

And stressing the need to continue training and support for potential women candidates, he continued: "Going in for positive discrimination is something I believe we ought to do but it does not mean we do not do other things."

Dr Harris also argued that the Lib Dem cause celebre of proportional representation had often proved a key move in bringing more equal representation.

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