Tories hit back in MP selection row
The Conservatives have defended their diversity record after what the party called "unacceptable" claims by a constituency chairman that a would-be MP faced a tougher task to get selected because she was an ethic minority female.
John Barnes, an East Sussex councillor who is president of the association in Bexhill and Battle, told the Financial Times he believed the "double whammy of being brown and a woman" made it harder to win the support of grassroots Tories.
Suella Fernandes came third of four in the contest to defend the 12,000-plus majority won in 2010 by MP Greg Barker, who is stepping down, with the berth going to lawyer Huw Merriman, a councillor in the neighbouring area.
Mr Barnes told the newspaper that London-born barrister Ms Fernandes put in a "wowser" performance at the selection meeting and that he expected her eventually to secure a seat to fight in 2015.
But he added: "I think the double whammy of being brown and a woman probably handicaps her still.
"I think if Suella was up against less strong opposition, it would not have been held against her. But when you are battling three good men..."
All the candidates had been "excellent", he went on.
But while it would now be "unthinkable" for a party to pick a man over a stronger female candidate, it was not yet the case with ethnicity, he indicated, especially in rural areas with little or no ethnic minority populations.
"A person with brown skin is very visibly a townie in rural Sussex and looking very urban in rural Britain means you are at a potential disadvantage."
Ms Fernandes, who co-founded t he Africa Justice Foundation and a free school in Brent, also sought the nomination in Uxbridge, where Boris Johnson won, and is on a shortlist of 12 for the Havant seat held by the retiring David Willetts..
Labour said the comment showed that David Cameron's claims to have changed the Tory Party were "empty".
"When a Tory association says being brown and a woman is a handicap in a selection, it reveals a party completely at odds with modern Britain," Lucy Powell, Labour's vice chairwoman of the general election campaign, said.
A spokesman for Conservative Central Office pointed out that the neighbouring seat of Wealden chose an Asian women - Nusrat Ghani - as its candidate and that in Tory held-seats where the MP was retiring there had been five ethnic minority candidates selected out of a total of 28.
Three of those five - including Ms Ghani - were picked via an open primary of local people rather than party members.
"These comments are unacceptable and they neither reflect the views of the Conservative Party nor the reality, which is that people from all backgrounds are being selected by local associations," the Tory spokesman said.