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Monday, 2 October, 2000, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
Tory row over women MPs
Theresa May
Theresa May addresses the Tory conference
The Tory leadership has begun the first day of its annual conference in Bournemouth with a disagreement over the party's failure to select women candidates.

Ahead of a conference debate, two female Tory members trying to win nominations called on the party leadership to address the issue.

Something must be done and that something - the bullet that has got to be bitten - has probably got to be some form of positive discrimination

Melinda Libby
But Theresa May MP - who speaks for her party on women's issues - told conference during a session entitled Women's Choices that the Conservatives "had never been a party to ghetto-ise" people and she ruled out positive discrimination.

Earlier on Monday, Melinda Libby told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that she had spent 10 years unsuccessfully searching for a winnable seat after she had contested the safe Labour seat of St Helens North at the 1987 election.

She said: "I understand that there are 19 winnable seats that have so far selected candidates and not one of them has been a woman.

"Something must be done and that something - the bullet that has got to be bitten - has probably got to be some form of positive discrimination."

Another would-be candidate, Elizabeth Gibson, said that the current selection process worked against women.

She told the programme. "I think it is very important that a form of fair selection making for women who, very often, are the backbone of the voluntary party and foot soldiers on the doorstep. They are really in touch with the grass roots so they have that chance to shine through."

But Mrs May told Conservatives that there were some "first class women candidates in our party".

And she attacked the government's record on women, saying that the working family tax credit penalised women who wished to stay at home with their children.

"Women are fed up with a Labour government that tries to force them into the workplace," she said.

The women's session, the first of its kind at a Tory conference, drew a range of speakers from the audience.

Fiona Guest from Hemel Hempstead said Tory women wanted "to be treated on merit alone" and she called for the abolition of Conservative Party women's committees which she claimed were a barrier to more women becoming MPs.

Prospective Tory candidate for Bury South Nicola Page said that people should be chosen as candidates "not because they a woman, not because they are a man but because they are the best".

But despite the good intentions the Tories have yet to select a woman for a Tory-held seat.

Positive discrimination not for Tories

Earlier on Monday Mrs May said: "Sadly at the moment we have not had a woman selected for a Conservative-held seat. We have had a number of women selected for winnable seats."

But the Tories would not go down the road of positive discrimination, she stressed.

"The Labour Party believed in all-women short lists until they were ruled illegal in order to get more women selected.

"In the Conservative Party we have always taken the view - and women have as well - that they do not want to be selected on that basis of positive discrimination, but there is a long way to go. I accept that there is a lot of work to do."

Mrs May's comments come the week after Labour's Minister for Women Baroness Jay indicated that Labour was considering changing the law to legalise women-only shortlists.

At the last election Labour had 101 women MPs compared with just 13 on the Tory benches.

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