The Women 50:50 campaign has the power to change Scottish politics

19 Oct 2014


Adversarial politics, whereby politicians arguing with and accusing each other of trying to score political goals by using issues as political footballs (whilst doing exactly that themselves), dominates our political system and debate between our representatives. It is hollow rhetoric and political jargon war as the #LongTermEconomicPlan clashes with the #CostOfLivingCrisis; largely meaningless political slogans are used as weapons and politicians bicker in Parliament, on television, and on Twitter.


With that in mind, when there is a cross-party consensus on an issue, it is worth sitting up and paying attention, no matter what the issue is. Such is the rarity of politicians working together in order to enact positive change. When the issue in question is something as important as gender equality, it is definitely worth sitting up and engaging for.


The announcement earlier this week that Nicola Sturgeon was to become the new SNP leader and First Minister, having run unopposed, means that all three main parties in the Scottish Parliament are now led by women, with Johann Lamont leading Scottish Labour, and Ruth Davidson in charge of the Scottish Conservatives. This reflects, more than ever, that Scottish politics is succeeding in terms of gender equality where Westminster has failed. Yet there is so more that can be done.


The ‘Women 50:50’ campaign within Holyrood to achieve equal representation for women within the parliament has achieved widespread support from SNP, Labour, Lib Dem, and Green MSPs. Launched by Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale and Green MSP Alison Johnstone, the campaign aims to “achieve a balance in public life, so that our elected representatives reflect society as it is”, through the use of legal quotas.


The campaign itself has been in existence since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but has been rejuvenated after increased political engagement following the referendum on Scottish independence. SNP MSP Marco Biagi says that he believes the campaign is important because while the Scottish Parliament has succeeded in achieving diversity in some areas, it remains “stubbornly very male”.


We have a parliament in Scotland that represents the people, but that word has two meanings,” the Edinburgh West MSP told me. “While we're good at one of them, we fall short a bit on the other. While Holyrood has a good record on ethnic minorities, disability and sexuality, we remain stubbornly very male.


Every citizen should be able to look at their parliament and see themselves looking back. I spoke about the importance of seeing yourself reflected in society's institutions when I as a gay man backed equal marriage - the same I feel must apply to women and the institution that is their country's parliament.”


Women 50:50 is not the first campaign aiming to achieve greater gender equality within politics. Ahead of the European Parliament elections last May, more than 100 MEPs signed a declaration giving their support to a 50:50 gender balance in the European Parliament. Today, just 37% of MEPs are women, while just 30% of those who make up the European Commission are female.


The way the deliverance of gender equality for Holyrood would likely work under the present Scottish Government is through the SNP’s preferred STV voting system. This is where the division of prospective MSPs into two categories, regional and list, would be ended and constituencies would increase in terms of size, with several members being elected on a proportional basis.


This proposed system of achieving the campaign’s ends has been criticised on the grounds that it is lacking in practicality and doesn’t actually solve any of the issues that have caused gender inequality in politics in the first place. There is a fear that in a voting system which involved first, second and third preferences, women would be far less likely than men to be the first preference and there are a range of issues and attitudes which need to be tackled before that will cease to be the case and a level playing field is achieved.


There is some truth in this. Writing in the Scotsman earlier this month, Jane Bradley made the point that there are numerous reasons why women do not go for high-ranking positions. “Many women- and men- with children, choose to work part-time for a while, effectively ruling us out of senior positions over that time,” Bradley wrote.


Others shy away from jobs which require longer hours and more travel. That nibbles away at the number of women looking to enter high-level roles.


Shared maternity/paternity leave is to come in next year, which will help equalise things, but the take-up of the existing paternal leave system suggests that more women than men will still choose to take time off.”


Another point to consider is the use of quotas. Green MSP Alison Johnstone told BBC Scotland last month that “in a 50:50 Parliament, we are no more ‘quota women’ than men, we would be there on merit”. Few would disagree with that, but the question has to be asked about exactly how useful gender quotas would be when it comes to achieving gender equality if fewer women than men are looking to enter parliament in the first place.


A big problem for women in politics is the idea that to be a successful career politician as a woman, you need to “have it all”. Miriam Gonzalez won feminist brownie points recently after stating at the launch of Inspiring Women In Scotland that “I don’t want it all - I just want what men have”, as her husband, Nick Clegg, addressed the Liberal Democrat party conference in Glasgow.


This, for me, is the key point of the importance of what Women 50:50 want to achieve. Successful politicians who are women are latched onto by the media and are seen as much more interesting than successful politicians who are men, because it is seen as much more difficult to be a successful politician is you are female. And indeed, in a lot of ways, it is. But it shouldn’t be.


The problem with using quotas to try and achieve gender equality in the Scottish Parliament is that it takes for granted that scores of women will be buoyed firstly by the increased political engagement in the wake of the independence referendum, and secondly, by the Women 50:50 campaign itself where more women than ever before will want to get into politics. This is unlikely to be the case as long as issues such as childcare and a lack of time go unresolved; the fact that the Smith Commission tasked with brainstorming ideas for future devolution to Scotland is composed of 10 representatives and just two of them are women is testimony to that.


What Women 50:50 are trying to achieve is a hugely important step forward for gender equality which is vital not just for women, but for our society as a whole. The diversity of our representatives should reflect the makeup of our society and I am completely behind their campaign.


Yet, I believe that there is much more that can be done to address the reasons why there is such a gender imbalance in the Scottish Parliament and, indeed, in Westminster, and I am adamant that the time has come to look past voting systems and look at the issues which still prove to be stumbling blocks when it comes to women entering politics.


By Alex Shilling

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