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Sunday, 6 May, 2001, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Labour to change women shortlist law
Blair's Babes
The "Blair Babes" were an icon of Labour's 1997 victory
A new Labour government would change the law to allow political parties to discriminate in favour of women when choosing election candidates.

Baroness Jay, Leader of the House of Lords and Women's Minister, said the pledge would appear in Labour's election manifesto.

All-women short-lists were used to select Labour candidates for the last election before they fell foul of employment laws in the courts in 1998.

The number of women MPs is set to fall at the election because fewer women have been selected for winnable seats.

No women's cull

But Lady Jay argued the number of Labour candidates in winnable seats would only decline by one.

She told BBC's On The Record programme: "We are not talking about a huge cull of women MPs but there may well be fewer and that is a bad thing."

The minister confirmed press speculation that Labour would move to allow women-only shortlists to be used.

Baroness Jay
Jay: Wants early change in law
"We will make a manifesto commitment to change the law if we win the next election to allow political parties to make a change which will enable them to be positive in their selection of women."

She was "pretty convinced" the law change would be "foolproof" against a legal challenge, even in the European courts.

And the minister, who is stepping down from the government at the next election, hoped the law change could be passed early in the next parliament.

Lady Jay said it had been hoped the success of all-women shortlists in 1997 would change the culture of selection.

"It has not frankly happened as quickly as we had hoped," she explained.

Concerns

Her announcement follows concerns raised by women Labour MPs such as Oona King, who said she was "shocked" by the male dominance of the Commons.

John Edmonds, general secretary of the GMB union, said: "I think the law ought to be changed. The law ought to be reflecting the aspiration of society."

That aspiration was for roughly equal numbers of men and women MPs.

There has been speculation too that the Women's Unit could be replaced by an Equality Unit.

But Lady Jay said the unit had been successful because it was able to work across the whole of Whitehall but that way of doing things was not "set in concrete".

She added that the working practices of parliament also needed modernisation and suggested family-friendly working hours could be introduced at Westminster.

Turning point

Julie Mellor, who chairs the Equal Opportunities Commission, welcomed the manifesto pledge.

"The number of women MPs is set to drop after the next election and without positive action women's representation will come to be seen as a blip.

"I believe that a change in selection procedures telling political parties to use special measures to boost the number of women elected will come to be seen as a turning point in political history."

Lord Rennard, campaigns director for the Liberal Democrats, said they welcomed government moves to clarify the laws on the issue.

But he told BBC News Online: "It's more important that the voters themselves should be given the the power through a more proportional voting system to address issues such as gender imbalance."

Proportional representation always increased the number of women elected to parliament, he argued.


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02 Oct 00 | UK Politics
10 Jul 00 | Wales
07 Mar 00 | UK Politics
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