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EDITIONS
Thursday, 27 September, 2001, 12:12 GMT 13:12 UK
Lib Dems reject women-only lists
Liberal Democrat supporters and Charles Kennedy during the election campaign
Only 10% of the Lib Dems' MPs are women
The Liberal Democrat conference has given a slap in the face to the party's hierarchy by rejecting calls for all-women shortlists to be used to choose parliamentary candidates.

Instead, an amended motion was passed setting a 40% target for the number of women selected to fight the most winnable seats and those where a Lib Dem MP stands down.


Where is a the honesty in having a woman candidate have the slur that she is only a token woman

Candy Piercy
Lib Dem delegate
Just five of the Lib Dems' 52 MPs are women, and while most delegates agree that number should rise, there were sharp divisions on how that should be achieved.

Opponents of the proposed new measures argued that using all-women shortlists was illiberal, but campaigners for the change insisted they were the only way to address the gender imbalance.

Attack on gender inequality

The motion proposing the new measures was moved by former Lib Dem MP Jackie Ballard, an outspoken advocate of women in politics.

She argued: "Every liberal bone in my body is opposed to positive discrimination but every liberal bone in my body is even more opposed to gender inequality."

The defeated motion would have required women to be selected in all seats where a Lib Dem MP stood down and at least 40% of women and 40% of men to be chosen in seats where a 7.5% swing was needed to win at the next general election.

The changes would have lasted until a third of its MPs in the Commons were female.

Heavyweight support

Other prominent figures who backed the motion included Lib Dem peer Shirley Williams and the party's spokesman on women's issues Evan Harris.

Baroness Williams said women carried responsibilities, such as caring for children or elderly relatives, which posed huge hurdles to becoming candidates.

Baroness Williams
Williams: Women face huge hurdles to being candidates
And she continued: "At the moment the Conservative Party is dissolving into irrelevance. Do you really want the Liberal Democrats to be seen as profoundly backward and old fashioned in attitudes to gender?"

In a debate that sparked strong passions on both sides, it was Ross, Skye and Inverness delegate Candy Piercy who proposed the successful amendment.

As well as setting the 40% target, those changes also mean an urgent review will take place of selection processes, focusing specifically on training and support for candidates.

Ms Piercy asked: "Where is the honesty in having a woman candidate have the slur that she is only a token woman?"

She argued the problem was not about selection but about why more women were not coming forward to be candidates.

Wrong question

"In my view all-women shortlists are the wrong answer to the wrong question and we all know two wrongs do not make a right."

Lyn-Su Floodgate, from the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students group, branded the shortlists proposal as "illiberal and unworkable".

"It sets out no structure to meet its aims and deprives local parties of their ability to choose the most able candidate.

"The proposers are telling me I cannot fulfil my dream of becoming an MP without this motion. They underestimate me."

And Lord Lester, who helped to draw up the Sex Discrimination Act during the 1970s, warned the shortlist plans could expose the party to a legal challenge, leaving it with "egg on its face".

Ethnic minority worries

Another argument raised against the move was that it would make it more difficult for ethnic minority candidates to get selected, although Baroness Williams dismissed that, stressing the party's commitment to equal opportunity for all groups.

Even if the shortlist plans had been agreed, the party would have needed to wait for the government to introduce new legislation to allow political parties to use positive discrimination.

Labour used women only shortlists before the 1997 election but they later fell foul of an employment tribunal ruling.

Party leader Charles Kennedy avoided the issue. He has argued the party should not discuss until the new legislation was passed.

Later, Dr Harris said the party would now redouble its efforts to ensure there was no discrimination in selecting its candidates and to get more women coming through the whole process.

"What the debate showed is that as a party we are united in being extremely positive and committed to getting more women MPs elected, but that we still have not got full agreement on the best way forward."


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