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Revealed: How labour sees women; "We always imagine what your knickers are like,"

Revealed: How labour sees women; "We always imagine what your knickers are like," said the selection committee to a woman wanting to be an MP. Jackie Ashley on a shocking dossier of political misogynyLabour has a culture problem. We all know it. We watch it. We dislike it. We sometimes talk about it in a woolly, general way. But we find it curiously hard to describe what is, in fact, blindingly obvious. Labour in power is grey-suited, arrogant-sounding, cut off from most of our lives, a party of closed groups and favoured sons. Ah--there's a point. Sons.

Its culture problem is that Labour is overwhelmingly male. This is about more than a simple right to equality. It should worry every party member who sees the public turning away. Labour's appetite for argon and ritual language; its domination by finger-wagging former lecturers and trade union officials, not to say sharp-suited barristers; the tight little circle of special advisers and spin-doctors... well, voters don't like those things. Rightly: they are symptoms of a grossly unbalanced and out-of-touch machine.

It's time for a straight answer to a straight question: does Labour actually want any more female MPs than the miserable 96 (out of 409 altogether) that it has at present? Oh yes, insists David Triesman, the party's general secretary, half is our goal, and no, the target is not being reduced to 35 per cent as suggested in a leaked Mill-bank report recently. It's just that, ahem, we're having a little local difficulty along the way.

Well, now we have the evidence. The little local difficulty is in fact a bloody great obstacle course -- so great that, for many female candidates, it's just not worth trying to get into parliament. The evidence comes from the Fawcett Society, a group that campaigns for more female representation at Westminster. When the number of female Labour MPs fell from 101 at the 1997 election to 96 at the last, the Fawcett Society decided to try to find out why.

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One obvious reason was that all-women shortlists, which had been used so successfully last time round, had been declared illegal under employment law. Even so, local parties were still directed by Labour's national executive committee to "continue to boost women's representation". In cases where there was no sitting MP, local parties had to put an equal number of men and women on the shortlist. But guess what happened -- the guys cleaned up. Why?

Good, old-fashioned, unreconstructed discrimination.

Of 37 safe Labour seats that became vacant ahead of the 2001 election, only four went to women (11 per cent). That compares with 11 out of 32 safe Labour seats (34 per cent) at the 1997 election. The Fawcett report, which covers all the main political parties, was written by Laura Shepherd-Robinson, the society's campaigns officer, and Professor Joni Lovenduski, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, and will be published in April. It is based on focus groups and face-to-face conversations with "well-qualified female candidates who had tried but failed to be selected by a safe or winnable parliamentary constituency".

It makes grim reading. The women who hadn't made the grade in safe Labour seats reported problems ranging from patronising comments through sexual harassment to corrupt use of postal votes. Some, not surprisingly, said their experience had put them off trying for another seat.

One woman had certainly not been prepared for her reception by the local Labour Party. She told the Fawcett researchers: "It was said to me, 'We do enjoy watching you speak, we always imagine what your knickers are like. We picture you in your underwear when when you are speaking.'" Another was asked: "I suppose you are one of the women we have got to look at?"

Two of the women questioned were told: "Your children are better off with you at home." Another was introduced to someone in the constituency as "one of these here radical militant feminists". Yet another, when suggesting she might attend a regional women's conference, was told: "You don't want to go down there: they are all lesbians."

The women faced not only a general lack of enthusiasm for female candidates, but many noticed a strong bias towards "favoured sons". In most cases, the favoured sons had the backing of the strongest local trade union: "All the unions had their top, number one candidate -- they weren't women," reported one woman. "One of the experiences I have had is of very well-connected men -- certain trade union officials -- who get help beyond what is normal."

These favoured sons, who might also have worked for the party locally, nationally, or even for No. 10, were given help and access way beyond other potential candidates: "X [now a sitting Labour MP] came up six months before, had time off from his job as a senior member of Labour Party staff... You didn't stand a chance with that one. All the machine behind him, it was unbelievable." Some were given extra help --early access to constituency membership lists, which are supposed to go to all short-listed candidates at the same time. "Some people had it for six months before they should have had it under the rules," reported one woman. "X [now a sitting Labour MP] had it a year before and he was already sending mailings."

Favoured sons were also the beneficiaries of large sums of money, from trade unions in particular. The selection of a parliamentary candidate is one of the few elections where there is no limit on spending, as one woman ruefully remarked: "Some people will be spending [pounds sterling]800 on a glossy leaflet, whereas I would be spending [pounds sterling]11 printing it myself... you automatically preclude those mothers who are at home, who just don't have the money to pay for the childcare, the petrol, the stationery, the [pounds sterling]500 in stamps that you have to do to leaflet."

It gets worse. Some favoured sons were helped by what can only be described as fiddling, particularly when it came to postal ballots. This is one candidate's experience: "A number of the men -- and I have to tell you it was men 99.9 per cent of the time -- consistently broke the rules... either by working in the constituency in advance, or by having people helping them in other ways, [such as] encouragement of the postal votes." Another complains of how a man with Alzheimer's was told "how he was to mark his numbers down", and a third woman attacked the whole system: "This is something I am not prepared to get this low down and dirty to do, which is to fill in the postal vote for an elderly and possibly confused person."

Even when complaints were made about abuses of the system, it made no difference: "When you proved conclusively that the rules were being broken, nothing happened," said a disappointed candidate.

The Fawcett report confirms research published earlier this year by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which found that 81 per cent of Conservative women and 60 per cent of Labour women agreed that selection committees in their party tended to look more favourably on male than on female candidates. It comes as little surprise that Britain's record on the world stage is far from glorious: we come 19th in a world "league table" of women's representation.

The Fawcett report concludes: "UK political parties are notoriously inhospitable to women. Culturally they are excessively masculine -- a characteristic that is reflected procedurally in candidate selection processes that have been especially difficult for women to negotiate."

To be fair, Labour has now put through the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill, which will enable political parties to use all-female shortlists, or any other measures, to ensure the selection of female candidates. However, relatively few safe seats come vacant during each electoral cycle, and if as many as half were to go to women, it would still take six or seven electoral cycles -- another 30 years or so -- for women to achieve equal representation at Westminster.

The Fawcett report should shock everyone interested in British democracy, because it paints a vivid picture of a party-political culture in sharp decline, an introverted, ageing, worryingly prejudiced insiders' club that is getting smaller all the time. Tony Blair is presumably aware that his grand idea of a fast-expanding, outward-looking mass-membership party has collapsed. But has he any idea of just how backward Labour culture looks, through female eyes? Or are the boys at No 10 still telling him everything's dandy out there in the country, where "the lads are behind you"?