LEADER of Ealing Council's Labour group Sonika Nirwal has criticised the furore over an all-women shortlist in Southall at the next General Election, saying "I am the best person for the job".

The argument over whether to include an all-women candidate list for the soon-to-be-vacant Southall seat has split Ealing Council's Labour group in two.

Councillors and MPs have been waging a war of words over the possible decision by the Labour Party's National Executive Committee to exclude men from standing.

And now opposition leader Sonika Nirwal has publicly criticised the "old boys' club" in her own party, and stated she is the strongest candidate to take over when 82-year-old MP Piara Khabra steps down.

"I am the front runner, definitely," she said. "I am leader of the group, I'm a young, Asian woman. I grew up in Southall, I'm educated in politics from Cambridge - of course I would want to do it."

Mr Khabra has lent his voice in support of an all-women list saying there had to be "more Asian women in the House of Commons".

He said: "People are diverting their attention to stupid things and dangerous things. No woman candidate has lost just because she is a woman.

"The question is very simple. It is about time people should actually consider there has been injustices. We should give more opportunity for women to play their part in running the country.

"I can assure you the women candidates are far better."

At a special emergency meeting of the General Committee (GC) of the Labour party in Southall on January 18, 42 members voted for a women-only selection, 27 for open selection, and one person abstained.

Two petitions were also presented at the meeting, one supporting an all-women shortlist - containing more than 900 signatures - and the other in favour of an open selection process, which more than 600 members had signed.

Chris Payne, Ealing and Southall Labour party secretary, said: "A clear majority of delegates representing the majority of Labour members in the constituency voted for a women-only selection."

But anger has grown from supporters of Gurcharan Singh, Lady Margaret ward councillor - and one of the strongest potential male candidates for the seat - who still argue men should not be excluded from standing.

Southall Broadway ward councillor Jadish Gupta called Mr Khabra's support for an all-women list "hypocritical".

He said: "It is not only gender discrimination but also a hindrance to the participation of most popular, experienced and winnable candidates."

Mr Singh himself called the GC vote "not relevant", arguing delegates were elected more than three years ago in 2004 and might not be representative of the current political climate in Southall.

"They want an all-women list because they cannot beat me fair and square," he said.

"My credentials are clear. I am not against women at all and having a woman MP is not a bad thing. It is not a question of their abilities as candidates - but men should have a chance to stand as well."

But Cllr Nirwal has slammed her dissenting backbenchers, saying it was the old guard of Southall who "did not want change".

"That is exactly it," she said. "It is an old boy's club. If they oppose it then they are not committed to the movement. You cannot pick and choose. If people feel they don't want to support the party they need to ask themselves why they are a member of the Labour Party.

"We have a national policy for the Labour Party and the General Committee supports that, which we have agreed locally.

"If people are left to their own devices, it does not put women forward. That is why the House of Commons looks like it does. We want to make the change happen now, not in 25 years."

Cllr Nirwal admitted the party was being "quite bold", but denied the move was causing irreparable damage.

"It is to be expected," she said. "We have selections all the time. It is about politics and individuals and when these sorts of things happen it becomes about personalities."

Deputy leader of the Labour group Cllr Ranjit Dheer has also criticised Cllr Singh for "undermining" national party policy.

He said: "He does not like women to be in power - he stood against Sonika last year and lost.

"He is against women in the labour party, and ideologically he is not in tune with party policy.

"First generation Asians are a bit of a turn-off," he continued. "We need someone, possibly a woman, who talks in an inclusive way. And so I passed the party leadership on to Sonika last year.

"This is what we want at a parliamentary level also. Our time has gone."

Many councillors at the town hall are secretly supporting Cllr Nirwal over fellow rival Cllr Jasbir Anand, whose well-documented series of legal battles have caused concern among the Labour benches.

One source told the Ealing Times: "We are aware of these issues and people are concerned about these things.

"For someone in public life it is not a good situation. They are very serious and the party is concerned.

"Sonika is impressing people daily. She is a Southall girl and has grown in the last six months. There is nothing at this stage that makes people doubt she will be a good MP."

Cllr Singh confirmed he would not oppose the shortlist Labour bosses decide on an all-women selection. "If the Labour party decide it will be an all-women list I will go along with that because I am a member of the Labour party," he said.

"If they wish that let them do it."

A decision on whether to prevent men from standing for the Southall seat will be made by the NEC on March 13.