Mr Smith was supposed to be on holiday and respecting a campaigning truce with his opponent in the Conservative Party leadership contest, Kenneth Clarke.

Instead he has given an interview to the BBC in which he says that he is opposed to increasing the number of Conservative women MPs by the method of all-women shortlists which Labour used for the 1997 election.

In Mr Smith's view this produced MPs who were not of “high quality” and who had not “really performed as politicians”. Why did he pick on women MPs in this crass way? The open shortlist system produces only too many men who do not really perform as politicans.

The issue is simple. How can a parliament and the ministers drawn from it properly represent half the population of the country if the number of women MPs is as scandalously low as it has always been in the past and, notwithstanding Labour's efforts, remains so today. There is nothing particularly revolutionary about all-women shortlists.

They are used widely in the rest of Europe without any noticeable decline in the quality of parliamentary debate or ministerial competence. Mr Smith may come to regret what he said and when he said it.

Although Conservative women have traditionally been content to make the tea and sell the raffle tickets it is difficult to believe that there are not now among them many who think they should be given help in taking more important roles.

Ray Fleming


For many people the name of Lord Longford, who died on Friday aged 95, is associated with the Moors murderess Myra Hindley whose campaign for release from life imprisonment he supported for many years. “Hate the sin - love the sinner” was the thought that drove him throughout most of his life, from his work for reconciliation with Germany after World War Two to his conviction that Hindley had sincerely repented of her crimes and was being kept in prison only because of pressure from the tabloid press.

This association, although valid, obscured Longford's long life of public service and commitment to Roman Catholicism.
At different times he was an Oxford don, a key assistant to Lord Beveridge during the formulation of the plan of Britain's welfare state, First Lord of the Admiralty, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Leader of the House of Lords, chairman of a bank and head of a distinguished publishing house.

Along the way he found time to write some 20 books and to become a kind of British Don Quixote, tilting at all manner of wrongs especially the lack of compassion that society showed to victims and the helpless.

Longford joined the Labour party in 1936 and was made a peer by Clement Atlee after the party's landslide victory in 1945.
His political life ended in 1968 when he resigned from office on the issue of Labour's failure to raise the school-leaving age because of severe economies.

Thereafter his energies were turned to the chairmanship of the publisher Sidgwick & Jackson, to his work as a prison visitor and to the organisation he set up to help released prisoners.

Notoriety came from his championing of Myra Hindley's cause but she was only one among countless prisoners he helped back into a normal and productive life.