Calling all women - Europe needs you

MORE than 50% of the electorate of the East of England is female - but shamefully for the four parties representing us in the European Parliament, none of them is a woman.

MORE than 50% of the electorate of the East of England is female - but shamefully for the four parties representing us in the European Parliament, none of them is a woman.

Seven men - three Conservative, two UK Independence Party, one Labour and one Liberal Democrat - were sent by voters to Brussels and Strasbourg in 2004 under the list system of proportional representation used for elections to Europe.

The party list system is meant to ensure that the Euro MPs elected are in proportion to the votes cast. But the party machines have failed to get gender balance right, despite weasel words that more women must be chosen to fight seats. In the case of the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties, whoever heads their regional list is guaranteed election.

The Labour Party uses zipping - that is, if a man is in number one position, there is a guarantee that the second place is offered to a woman. This works all the way down the list. In this region, Labour put a man in pole position, but didn't get enough votes for its first placed woman to be elected.

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The Lib Dems make much of their gender balance, but that didn't work in the East because it put men in first and second place on the party's list, so in the unlikely event of two Lib Dems winning, both would have been men. On the Tories' original list of seven candidates to fight the election across the six counties of the East, the two women were in positions six and seven, with no hope of winning. UKIP didn't have any women on its list.

I took the opportunity at a European Parliament regional lunch at Norwich City football club to ask our MEPs how the parties intended to rectify the imbalance. Naturally enough, none of them seemed keen to sacrifice themselves to allow a woman to take their place.

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Geoffrey Van Orden, who heads the Tory list, conceded that in regions where more than two Conservatives are guaranteed election - which is the case in the East of England - then a woman should be in the top three candidates.

Labour's Richard Howitt is lucky. In the 1999 election, Labour had a woman in pole position but when Eryl McNally did not seek re-election, he was promoted to number one shot. Had Eryl stood again, she would have been number one, he would not be an MEP, and this column wouldn't have been written.

Liberal Democrat Andrew Duff said he was proud of his gender and didn't see a problem because across the whole of the UK, the Lib Dems had more women Euro MPs than men. That's fine, but doesn't help us out here in the East.

It was Jeffrey Titford of UKIP who cut through some of the bluster to make a valid point. His party can't find women who are prepared to abandon their families and spend five days a week trooping around Europe, and then having to attend meetings and visits all over the East of England, again leaving their families behind. For UKIP, lack of female representation is not so important as for the others because it's never made a pretence that it must have more women in electable positions, either in the European list or selected for Westminster seats.

Labour and the Lib Dems are pinning their hopes on each getting two MEPs elected to Europe in 2009, with women in winnable positions. But unless women are promoted to the top of their list, I do not share the parties' confidence that they'll get more than one Euro MP elected in our highly Eurosceptic region.

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