50:50 – Not this time

Equality of representation for women was one of the aspirations of campaigners who supported the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in the 1980s and 1990s.  

A range of women came together from all walks of life to support the 50:50 campaign to secure fairer representation of women in the new Parliament.   Within the Labour Party it was a broad-based campaign with trade union, student and ordinary party members backing the call for equality.   

In the early days of the Parliament, largely due to the process of twinning which saw Scottish Labour join constituencies together to ensure that our members had the opportunity to choose whoever they thought were the best female and best male candidates in each area.   That system ensured gender balance for the first parliament. 

However since then there has been no specific mechanism to ensure equality and for the last three Scottish Parliament elections  there was no system in place to select women in any of our key targets seats.  

The expectation was that we’d fixed the problem having delivered 50% of our MSPs in 1999.   Over time however, that complacency has meant that we’ve had no strategy to replace women who stand down or retire and no push to attract new women into politics or to support them in the process of selection, which is a costly process both in terms of finance and time.  

Being an MSP is a big commitment and, as women still tend to shoulder the main responsibilities for childcare and caring for relatives, even though the parliament has “family friendly” hours for its formal business it’s certainly not family friendly in terms of the long hours most MSPs actually work.   

I’ve certainly noticed that whereas men tend to leave politics when they reach retiral age, my female MSP colleagues have disproportionately left the Parliament well before they reach that age and have gone on to other forms of employment.  I believe we have to plan for this properly and make sure both in our selection procedures and our training programmes we work with trade unions to make sure we support women in coming forward. 

Last May’s Scottish Parliament election results confounded expectations of a lower number of Labour women MSPs.   Although several well-known, experienced women who stood down were not replaced by female candidates there was a gender balance strategy for our  list candidates.   As we lost women who either lost their constituency seats or stood down from the Parliament we gained women from our list seats instead.   

Catriona Burness has just published an excellent handbook which charts the representation of women in parliaments and assemblies across the UK.    She has examined the progress made in securing a fairer representation of women across the country over the last few elections.    It analyses the impact of different voting systems and the varying efforts made by the political parties to ensure equality for women.   

What’s clear is that without some form of positive action, parties will not deliver significant numbers of women representatives.   One of the reasons why the gender balance in this Scottish Parliament is so low is because of the low-level of women MSPs in the SNP group.  In 1999 there were 15 out of 35 SNP MSPs.   This time round there are only 19 out of 69.  

Catriona’s research is timely as the Scottish Labour Review is currently underway.    We need to look at the experience of women at every level of Government.   We need to make sure that there is much better gender balance in local government too.   The current round of cuts are disproportionately affecting women more – as employees and as recipients of public services.   

There are also the recommendations which flow from the UK Parliament’s Speaker’s Conference which are worth looking at.  It was chaired by Anne Begg MP and identified barriers to selection for women. 

The conclusion that Catriona Burness has reached is that “Getting more women into Scottish politics will be a significant challenge.   It cannot be left to electoral accident or allowing the parties to get away with warm words in place of women.”  I agree.   If we are to secure fair representation we need to act.