WOMEN are on course to play a much bigger role in British national politics, champions of a fairer gender balance in Britain's House of Commons are saying.
After two years of discriminating in favor of women in selecting candidates, influential figures in the Labour Party opposition forecast that their party could have at least 80 female members in the 651-member House after the next general election.
Barbara Follett, already a candidate and a strong advocate of feminine rights, says about one-quarter of Labour's representatives will be women. ''That will double our current numbers and it will be a critical mass,'' she says. ''There will be enough women acting as role models to encourage others to come forward and change the atmosphere in Parliament.''
But the Labour leadership's policy of affirmative action in drawing up candidates' short-lists, decided on in 1993, has disturbed some aggrieved males who complain they have been unfairly excluded.
At present the House of Commons is heavily male dominated. Currently there are 62 women in the Commons: 39 Labour, 19 Conservative, three Liberal Democrat, and one Scottish Nationalist.
The ruling Conservatives have no such policy.
Tony Blair, elected last year as Labour leader, says that after the next elections the policy will not be needed.
His statement, however, angered some female party activists who insist the policy should stay in place until a 50-50 gender balance of Labour Ministers of Parliament (MPs) is achieved. Judith Church, a Labour MP, said she was dismayed that Mr. Blair planned to curtail the policy, commenting, ''He has wriggled.''
But Blair, who is eager both to modernize his party and avoid internal splits, has his eye on next October's party conference. Male opponents of the policy had planned to attack it from the platform, arguing that it is unfair and discriminatory. Under the system devised in 1993 by John Smith, Blair's predecessor, in 48 ''target'' seats, where the Conservatives have a narrow majority or the sitting Labour MP is retiring, candidate short-lists should be drawn up on the basis of ''women only need apply.'' By targeting marginal seats, Labour hopes to impress on women voters that it is more progressive in gender matters than its Conservative opponents.
The Labour Party also decided that if there was male resistance in the target seats, the party executive in London could impose a short-list. Blair has made it clear that he intends to press ahead with the policy in the run-up to the general election that must be held by mid-1998. Commenting on the process, Blair said Tuesday that it had ''not been ideal'' but added: ''We will have made the quantum leap we wanted to make.''
But not all male members of Labour are so happy. Peter Taverner, a senior Labour official in Manchester, one of the areas where male resistance has been most marked, thinks the scheme should be dropped immediately. ''The desire to have more women appointed is quite strong, but imposition from the center is quite wrong,'' he says.
Blair loyalists insist that the ingrained bias toward men being selected to contest House of Commons seats has already been cracked, but the policy needs to be followed through to ensure that the trend continues.
One male Labour Party official said yesterday, ''Everyone agrees the current gender balance is unsatisfactory.... A few masculine egos are bound to be dented in the process, but the policy is right, and Tony Blair isn't going to waver now.''