Political parties could be forced into all-women candidate shortlists

POLITICAL parties could be set mandatory quotas for the number of women they put forward as parliamentary candidates.

A cross-party review today urged that the move must be considered if there is not a "significant" increase in the number of female MPs in the forthcoming general election.

Such a reform would be highly controversial – even voluntary all-women shortlists have only ever been used by Labour.

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But the Speaker's Conference suggested compulsion might be necessary to increase diversity in the House of Commons.

It also called for candidate lists that exclude white people, although they would not be mandatory and it is unclear whether any parties would adopt them.

Chaired by Commons Speaker John Bercow, the Speaker's Conference was commissioned by Gordon Brown to investigate the under-representation in the House of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled.

In its report, it said: "If the political parties fail to make significant progress on women's representation at the 2010 general election, Parliament should give consideration to the introduction of prescriptive quotas, ensuring that all political parties adopt some form of equality guarantee in time for the following general election."

It added: "We recognise that equality guarantees do not sit easily within some political party cultures. Yet, to date, the all-women shortlist has been the only mechanism to have produced a significant step-change in representation in the House of Commons in a relatively short period of time."

The committee also called for shortlists for black and ethnic minority candidates.

It acknowledged that the idea of all-BME (black and minority ethnic) shortlists was "controversial".

There were concerns that people might think certain communities could only be represented effectively by one of its own members, or that BME candidates should not stand in majority-white areas.

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"Such beliefs would undermine the fundamental principle that an MP represents all his or her constituents regardless of their identity, background or political allegiance," the committee said.