LABOUR rebels in the constituency of former home secretary John Reid are preparing to defy orders from the party in London to nominate a woman as his successor.

An angry meeting of Airdrie and Shotts party has already discussed the "nuclear option" of rejecting an all-women shortlist even if it meant the local party being suspended.

Many of those at Airdrie Town Hall said they were ready to run an independent candidate against Labour's official choice if they were not allowed an open selection. It was only an appeal for calm by Brian Brady, the constituency chairman, that avoided the matter being put to a vote last Thursday.

However, the issue will reignite this week, with the deadline for expressions of interest closing on Friday.

So far, seven women have expressed an interest: ex-councillor Catherine Dick, former council candidates Morag Thomson and Clare Quigley, activists Irene Jardine and Beth Bruin, Pamela Nash, who works for John Reid, and Joanne Milligan, the former chair of Scottish Labour Students.

The row over an all-women shortlist has been brewing since September 2007, when Reid announced he would stand down at the next general election.

Under Labour rules designed to increase the number of female MPs, an all-women list is automatic when a male MP retires or dies.

But activists in Airdrie and Shotts are refusing to accept what they describe as "diktat" from Labour's hierarchy in London, and the imposition of a party "apparatchik". Many want to nominate North Lanarkshire councillor Jim Logue as Labour's candidate.

Some also fear that Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, is trying to install one of her supporters to bolster her power base in anticipation of a leadership contest.

In 2005, Labour lost Blaenau Gwent, their fifth-safest seat in the UK, after a row over an all-women list prompted Labour's Peter Law to leave the party and run as an independent. He overturned a majority of 19,313. The majority in Airdrie and Shotts is 14,084.

Brady said: "After what was an extremely angry meeting, the aim of the constituency party is still to convince the national executive to move to an open list. This would allow the best male and female candidates to be considered.

"It was very difficult to try to convince many members at this stage to continue to operate within the Labour Party rules. If they had got their way, they would have gone for the nuclear option."

He said he had warned the room that if the local party was suspended, a candidate would be imposed on the seat. "The rebels say, if that's the case, let it be, and if necessary we would run with an independent candidate'."

One possible tactic is that discontented activists may initially agree to an all-women list, and then fill it with paper candidates who will later withdraw and collapse the process. Its failure would then be used to argue the case for a contest open to both sexes.

Labour officials will be wise to any ruse. However, if local activists were prepared to go to such lengths, it would be a measure of how strong feelings are running in the constituency.

A spokesman for the SNP said the row was another sign of "Labour disintegrating across the UK".

A Labour spokesman said: "The selection process is well under way, whereby the local party will choose who is on the shortlist and the candidate will be chosen by all local members.

"Labour is the only party serious about getting more women into the House of Commons. The SNP, for example, do not have a single woman MP."

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