Scottish parties promise action on equality after report by Kenny and Mackay

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Dr. Meryl Kenny (UNSW) and Dr. Fiona Mackay (University of Edinburgh)

Political parties have been quick to promise action after ‘sobering figures’ about the continued ‘male, pale and stale’ face of Scottish politics. Dr. Meryl Kenny and Dr. Fiona Mackay reported that less than 1:4 candidates in the forthcoming local government elections are women, 1:7 contests are male-only, and all the major political parties are fielding less than 30% female candidates.

As leading Labour local politician Rhondda Geekie said:

‘These figures are a stark reminder of the scale of the challenge that Scotland faces. Local councils have to look like the communities they serve, or else they risk not serving those communities properly.’[1]

Our original report has provoked media debate on the lack of progress made by political parties to date on women’s representation. As we highlighted, 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.

Hitting the headlines:

In response to our call for tough action, the parties have responded quickly. As first reported by Severin Carrell on the Guardian’s The Scotland Blog, Scottish Labour has revealed a new 50/50 target for council candidates within eight years. For the 2012 elections, the party maintains that half of all open seats have had women candidates selected for them; although the overall headline figure is 27.7% female candidates. The SNP, which is likely to make substantial gains after 3 May but has less than a quarter female candidates overall, has promised a new equalities strategy including new guidance and advice to party branches and the establishment of a ‘women’s academy’. The Liberal Democrats defend their ‘non-inteventionist stance’ on women’s representation and highlight their new Future Leaders Programme for encouraging political participation, but still have only 27.9% female candidates standing. The Conservatives rely upon active encouragement and the ‘role-model effect’ of prominent female leaders, past and present. A spokesman for Scottish Conservative Central Office stated in email correspondence (20 April 2012):

‘Scottish Conservatives do not believe in positive discrimination and we do not select our candidates based on anything apart from merit. We are pleased that over a quarter of our candidates are female, but do not agree with increasing this percentage just for the sake of it. We want to attract candidates of the highest calibre irrespective of gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, marital status, or disability.’

As already highlighted in our report, the Scottish Greens have strong gender balance mechanisms in place that are triggered if the percentage of female or male candidates drops below 40%, or where the distribution of winnable seats looks unequal.

The Guardian’s Severin Carrell raises the question as to whether this could be the ‘last Scottish local election where the vast majority of councillors are “male, pale and stale”‘? We’ve highlighted the puzzle of why gender parity hasn’t yet ‘caught on’ at levels other than the Scottish Parliament, given the disparity between percentages of women elected to the Scottish Parliament (34.8%), Westminster Scottish constituencies (22%) and Scottish seats at Strasbourg (17%). 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.

A breakthrough? We welcome the renewed commitment stated by all of the major parties to improve their record on equality in Scottish politics. But, the devil is in the detail. Both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats raise the important point that it is not just the number of female candidates overall that matters, but also where they are placed. As Rhondda Geekie, Labour leader of East Dunbartonshire Council and one of only three female council leaders in Scotland, points out:

‘The wards women stand in are key. It is insufficient to stand more women candidates unless they are in wards with a realistic prospect of them being elected.’[2]

While both parties claim that many women are fighting winnable seats, it remains to be seen how both Labour and the Lib Dems will fare on 3 May, given the declining electoral fortunes of both parties. In contrast, the SNP, which hopes to sweep the board in Glasgow and elsewhere, seem somewhat unwilling to ‘risk’ women in target wards. As we reported, 2 out of 3 SNP slates in Glasgow City are male-only.

Derek Mackay the local government minister and the SNP’s local election campaign director had this to say:

‘The key challenge remains in getting more female members to come forward as candidates. We’d be glad to hear from Drs. Kenny and Mackay about what persuades more women to put themselves forward.’[3]

The barriers to women’s access to political office are well-documented. But, we can’t let parties off the hook, as there are a range of measures that parties can take to counteract these obstacles. Indeed, the performance of the Greens – although in the context of small numbers – shows that when parties actively recruit women and take gender balance seriously, more women will come forward.

As the Herald highlighted in its call for action to address ‘the gender imbalance on our councils’:

‘If parties do not do more to encourage women into their ranks, the call for quotas will surely grow’.

Why does it matter? The first and most important argument is justice done and seen to be done. Councils should look like the communities they represent and draw upon ‘all talents’. As we argued in our report, while the relationship between 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, in particular, 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.

We will be carrying out research to map the specifics of the parties’ new equality policies and also look at how they intend to implement them on the ground. We will continue our watching brief of trends in the numbers of female candidates selected and elected at all levels of Scottish politics.

Watch this space!


[1] As reported in The Guardian Scotland Blog (19 April 2012) and The Herald (20 April 2012).

[2] As reported in The Guardian Scotland Blog (19 April 2012) and The Herald (20 April 2012).

[3] As reported in The Guardian Scotland Blog (18 April 2012) and the Scottish Daily Mail (20 April 2012).

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2 Responses to Scottish parties promise action on equality after report by Kenny and Mackay

  1. edinburghpir says:

    Reblogged this on Edinburgh Politics and IR Blog and commented:
    Scottish parties promise action on equality after report by Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay on women council candidates. Read their response on the new gender politics @ edinburgh blog.

  2. Pingback: …but is it Good News for Women? | Gender Politics at Edinburgh

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