Thirteen years after devolution heralded a ‘new dawn’ in women’s representation – with Nordic levels of women MSPs elected to the first Scottish Parliament – the story remains very different at local government level. Less than 1 in 4 candidates for next month’s local government elections are women, leaving the face of local politics looking decidedly ‘male, pale, and stale’. 1 in 7 council wards is contested by men only. Whilst all-women shortlists have attracted controversy both North and South of the border, the continuation of these all-male shortlists and contests largely goes unnoticed. With local government in crisis around perceived problems of legitimacy, representativeness and quality, this raises questions as to the lessons learned, future prospects, and actions needed if there is to be any real progress on women’s representation in Scotland. We argue that the time has come for tough action on women’s representation, or nothing is going to change anytime soon.
What are the lessons learned from the Scottish Parliament’s success? First, change doesn’t happen on its own. The high numbers of women elected to the Scottish Parliament were not the result of luck or ‘trickle up’ or natural evolution, but were achieved through sustained campaigning and bold party action. In short, gender quotas work. But the puzzle remains: why haven’t quotas ‘caught on’ elsewhere in the political system? Currently, the Scottish Parliament has 45 women MSPs (34.8%), compared with only 22% of Scottish MPs, 17% Scottish MEPs, and 21.6% of Scottish local councillors. Of particular note are trends at the local level, where the percentage of women councillors has flat-lined over the past four elections, hovering around 22% overall.
Change can happen when there’s a shake up of the system. Reformers had high hopes that the introduction of a PR-STV electoral system in local government in the run-up to the 2007 elections would rejuvenate local politics and provide new opportunities for women to be selected and elected. However, progress did not materialize, instead depressingly, it was more of the same. In fact, there was a marked drop in the number of women candidates selected and a small decrease in the number of women councillors elected.
What are the prospects, then, for the local government elections in 2012? Supporters of STV, such as the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), had hoped that the unrealized progressive promise of STV would materialize in the second elections, once the new system had bedded down. The candidate lists have now been released, and our initial analysis of the raw figures shows that the numbers are virtually unchanged from 2007. None of the parties, with the exception of the Scottish Greens, have implemented effective equality measures. This suggests that the number of women likely to take up seats in local councils across Scotland will either stall or fall in 2012. Ethnic minority candidate breakdowns are not yet available, but the evidence suggests these numbers also will be low.
Some headline figures:
- Women are 584 of 2497 total candidates (23.4%, compared to 22.5% in 2007 and 27.7% in 2003).
- Women are 94 out of 362 Conservative candidates (25.9%).
- Women are 136 out of 497 Labour candidates (27.7%).
- Women are 69 out of 247 Liberal Democrat candidates (27.4%).
- Women are 147 out of 614 SNP candidates (23.9%).
- Women are 35 out of 86 Green candidates (40.7%).
- Women are 103 out of 691 Independent/Other candidates (14.9%).
- 56 out of 353 wards (15.9%) have no women candidates standing for election.
- 10 out of 32 local authority areas have 20% or fewer female candidates standing.
- The best local authorities in terms of women candidates are Clackmannanshire (36.7%) and Angus (34%), although the current proportion of women councillors in each authority is substantially lower (22.2% and 27.6% respectively).
- Inverclyde, currently an all-male council, has only one woman standing (Vaughan Jones, Labour) out of 38 total candidates (2.6%).
- In Glasgow City, where the SNP hope to sweep the board after Labour’s internal strife, 2 out of 3 SNP slates are male only. This suggests that they aren’t prepared to ‘risk’ women in target wards.
What actions are needed? Well, STV isn’t the answer – at least, not on its own. STV was sold as ‘good for women’ and a step forward from first-past-the-post (FPTP), in terms of opening up voter choice. In 2007, the ERS heralded the introduction of STV as a ‘small step’ that would ‘lead to a giant leap in democracy for local government.’ The ERS has consistently argued that STV opens up more opportunities for small parties and Independents, which may benefit women, and that multi-member wards encourage parties to run gender-balanced and more ethnically diverse tickets.
There is little international evidence to support this optimistic view. While some commentators see STV as largely gender-neutral, others suggest that STV can be disadvantageous, especially when operating with smaller size wards, as is the case in Scotland. Indeed, none of the relatively few countries that use STV can be said to be ‘trailblazers’ on women’s representation. For example, a smaller proportion of women are returned under STV to the Irish Dáil (15%) than under FPTP to the Westminster House of Commons (22%).
We are sceptical that a system that facilitates the rise of Independent candidates provides an opportunity for women, as the ERS suggests. STV advantages individual candidates with access to time, money and political networks, most of whom tend to be men. Our figures bear out our concerns, as around 85% of all Independent and small party local government candidates in 2012 are men. International research also suggests that parties are less likely to run gender-balanced tickets in small-size wards (3-5 seats), than they are in larger wards (5-7+ seats) where they are more likely to pick up multiple seats.
Experience to date suggests parties – rather than electoral systems – are the key factors in promoting women’s political representation. The barriers to women’s access to political office are well-documented, and there are a range of measures that parties can take to counteract these obstacles. If Scotland is to make further headway, parties need to demonstrate that they are serious about changing the face of Scottish politics and also take determined action by introducing and implementing effective equality measures at local level. Lessons can be learned from the Scottish Greens, who are running 40.7% female candidates, who are fairly placed in winnable seats. The party has gender balance mechanisms that are triggered if the percentage of female or male candidates drops below 40%, or where the distribution of winnable seats looks unequal. The prospect of central intervention means that local selectors keep these equality criteria to the front of their minds when selecting candidates, according to the Green Party. This mechanism did not need to be triggered in 2012, suggesting that a general culture of gender equality has become institutionalized in the Greens.
What could parties do?
- Field equal numbers of male and female candidates overall.
- Ensure that nominations for target wards specifically and target local authority areas more generally are equally distributed between male and female candidates.
- Where parties are standing more than one candidate in a council ward, these should be gender-balanced tickets.
- If parties distributing literature suggesting how voters should rank candidates (as the SNP is doing in some local authority areas), parties could suggest that voters rank female candidates first on their ballots.
However, the reluctance of the major parties to make equality guarantees and wider trends of slippage in women’s representation over time raise the question as to whether women’s representation is too important to be left up to political parties. Has the time come to consider statutory quotas, by which we mean legislation which requires parties to take positive action on women’s representation, following the example of countries like Spain, Belgium, France, and even the Republic of Ireland, which is currently drawing up electoral quota legislation?
Why does women’s representation matter? It is widely accepted that men and women should play an equal role in political decision-making to ensure legitimacy, representativeness and quality. We need local councils that look like their communities and that also draw upon ‘all talents’. How can we afford for it to be otherwise? Indeed, recent media coverage has begun to talk about the ‘merit’ of women’s representation, for example, highlighting the paucity of talented Labour men at Holyrood.
Whilst the link between women’s political presence and the promotion of women-friendly policies is far from straightforward, nonetheless, there is considerable evidence to suggest that women politicians ‘make a difference’, or, more accurately, that more gender-balanced parliaments and councils do. What is at stake? In times of austerity and welfare state retrenchment, it is crucial that women’s voices and perspectives (in all their diversity) are included in the process. This is especially the case at the local level, where difficult decisions are made and cuts will hit hardest. Evidence suggests it is harder for progressive policies, such as action to tackle domestic violence, to rise up the political agenda in male-dominated local government than, for example, in the more gender-equal Scottish Parliament. Whilst the Scottish Parliament’s innovative domestic violence strategy has been widely lauded, it stands or falls at local level where it is implemented on a daily basis. Worryingly, recent data from Scottish Women’s Aid reports that, in real terms, 61% of refuge groups have experienced a reduction in the level of funding received from their local authority (2009-2010).
The May 3 elections will almost certainly bring ‘more of the same’ to Scottish local government. But, it should serve as a wake-up call to politicians, activists and voters alike that something has to change, and soon.
 We borrow this expression from Professor James Mitchell’s (University of Strathclyde) observation of the membership of the SNP.
 ERS Website: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/local-government-in-england/ (accessed 16 April 2012).
 Correspondence with Scottish Green Party Elections and Campaigns Committee.
 Kevin McKenna ‘If only Holyrood appreciated women’, The Observer, 8 April 2012: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/08/alex-salmond-holyrood-johann-lamont
 Scottish Women’s Aid (2010): http://www.scottishwomensaid.org.uk/assets/files/Funding%20of%20Women’s%20Aid%20services%20report.pdf
Table 1: Male and Female Candidates by Local Authority
|#||Local Authority||Women Candidates||Male Candidates||Total Candidates||Percentage Women|
|4||Argyll and Bute||17||61||78||21.8%|
|6||Dumfries and Galloway||16||66||82||19.5%|
|12||City of Edinburgh||30||97||127||23.6%|
|20||Na h-Eileanan Siar||5||58||63||7.9%|
|24||Perth and Kinross||21||57||78||26.9%|
Table 2: Male and Female Candidates by Party
|Party||Female Candidates||Male Candidates||Total Candidates||Percentage Women(Percentage Women 2007)|
*2007 figures are taken from Bochel and Denver (2007) who disaggregate Independents and Others.