ONE of the region's Labour strongholds looks likely to get its first woman MP after the party announced an all-female shortlist for the constituency.

Durham City is one of ten constituencies which the party's National Executive Committee has earmarked for a female candidate to add to the 118 women already sitting in the Commons.

MP Gerry Steinberg, who has represented Durham for 16 years, has announced plans to retire at the next election, expected to be in 2005 and 2006.

Gateshead East and Washington West, whose MP Joyce Quin is also standing down, will also choose from an all-female shortlist.

Party members in Blaydon, where John McWilliam is retiring, will be free to pick a candidate of either sex. Thirteen Labour MPs nationally have announced their retirements.

Labour first introduced all-women shortlists in 1997 but dropped them for the 2001 election after they were challenged for discriminating against men.

The policy has been revived after it was confirmed that discrimination laws do not apply to political parties.

A spokeswoman at the party's regional headquarters on North Tyneside said: "We believe it is the most effective way of increasing representation by women.

"It will be a fresh start for Durham with a strong female candidate. Hopefully, whoever is chosen will be as good as some of the women we have already.''

Constituency party spokeswoman Pat Conway said the announcement was "no great surprise. I'm sure some people won't be terribly happy but as a party we will get it sorted and get ourselves a good MP."

The selection process is likely to begin in the autumn.

* The Liberal Democrats will also field a female candidate, Carol Woods, of Sherburn Village, general manager for CMA Microdialysis Limited, who was runner-up to Mr Steinberg in 2001.