Women in Scottish Politics: Travelling the Distance

Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay

The announcement last week of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership bid to replace Alex Salmond heralds an important turning point in Scottish politics: for the first time ever, three of the main Scottish parties will be led by women, and Scotland will have a female first minister. It also comes on the heels of a two-year long independence referendum debate which, after an unpromising start marked by elite pacting and all-male platforms, ended on a more inclusive note, engaging strong women campaigners and activists from across the political spectrum.

As Sturgeon herself noted, her candidacy sends a ‘strong message to every girl and young woman in Scotland’ that ‘there is no glass ceiling on ambition.’ Yet, while this ground-breaking moment should be celebrated, there is a still a long way to go for women in Scottish politics. Women continue to be under-represented at all political levels in Scotland: they are only 24% of local councillors, 16.7% of Scottish MEPs, 35% of MSPs, and 22% of Scottish MPs. As we have argued elsewhere the time has come for tough action on women’s representation in Scotland, or nothing is going to change anytime soon.

What explains the continuing under-representation of women in Scottish politics? Our research highlights the important role of political parties as ‘gatekeepers’ to political office. When parties have adopted measures aimed at promoting women’s representation – such as gender quotas – the proportion of women in politics has increased. We can see this in the results of the first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999, when Scottish Labour implemented gender quotas in the form of ‘twinning’ in constituency seats as well as a placement policy on the regional lists. Its main electoral rival, the SNP, also implemented informal measures which ensured that female candidates were placed in favourable list positions. These measures had a clear impact on headline figures: notably, women made up 50% of Scottish Labour MSPs and 43% of SNP MSPs elected in 1999.

Since this high point, however, equal representation has slipped down the political agenda. Overall trends across the four main Scottish political parties point to either a stalling or falling in the number of women MSPs elected – in the case of Labour, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats – or large percentage increases based on small numerical gains – in the case of the Conservatives. There has been little evidence that gender quotas have ‘caught on’ since 1999, either across political parties or different political levels. Scottish Labour has been the only party to adopt strong quota measures across all Scottish Parliament elections, while the SNP has adopted no measures to promote women’s representation (either formal or informal) since 1999. These differences are reflected in the numbers – while in 1999, the SNP’s performance on women’s representation closely matched Labour’s, since then it has been almost 20 percentage points behind its main competitor.

As we have repeatedly argued, these trends suggest that women’s representation is too important to be left up to political parties – in other words, the time has come for legislative quotas in Scottish politics. As such, we welcome the new cross-party campaign for 50:50 representation in Scotland, led by Women 50:50 which calls:

  • For all parties to strive to 50:50 candidates for the 2016 Holyrood elections
  • For a commitment to 50:50 in all 2016 party manifestos
  • For control over equality legislation (and power to legislate for gender quotas) to be devolved from Westminster to Edinburgh
  • For 2020 to be the first 50:50 Scottish Parliament by law

Equal representation in the Scottish Parliament was one of the original demands of devolution campaigners in the 1980s and 90s, with gender balance seen as a ‘shorthand’ for the wider reform movement’s aspirations to be a modern, democratic and inclusive Scotland. The current constitutional moment – in the aftermath of the independence referendum – has opened up a crucial window of opportunity to revisit and recharge these aspirations. In doing so, however, campaigners must draw on the lessons learned from devolution, as well as lessons from other 50:50 and parity campaigns currently underway – at UK level, in Ireland, in the European Union, and elsewhere:

Lesson #1: Organised women and their allies can make a difference. The election of Nordic levels of women MSPs in 1999 did not happen by accident, but was instead the result of a sustained struggle by a diverse coalition of women’s organizations, grassroots activists, female trade unionists, party women and gender experts who were able to successfully insert gendered claims for inclusion into the devolution process. For the current 50:50 campaign to be successful, the constituent parts of the women’s movement, the trade union movement and wider civic society must be brought together – a task which may be more complicated in the shadow of the independence referendum, where the often adversarial nature of the debate has potentially made cross-party and cross-sectional alliances more difficult to form.

Women must also be equal participants in all discussions and structures that determine any new constitutional settlement in Scotland and the UK – and these processes must engage with women’s voices in civic Scotland more broadly. Worryingly, the fast-track deal made by the three unionist parties to boost Scotland’s powers leaves little to no scope for public consultation – in sharp contrast to the more inclusive processes that existed in the run-up to devolution – which has prompted calls for a citizen-led UK-wide Constitutional Convention.

Lesson #2: Quotas work, but the devil’s in the detail. Those who oppose gender quotas often advance a set of well-worn criticisms – they are un-democratic, they discriminate against men, they create ‘token’ women politicians, and so on. These sorts of claims are simply not supported by the evidence, either in Scotland or internationally, which overwhelmingly demonstrates that quotas are the most effective way of ensuring significant increases in women’s representation. As already highlighted, the use of quota measures by the Labour Party continues to have a significant impact on headline figures – delivering gender equality (or better) in the party’s Scottish Parliament cohort until 2011.

However, the presence of quotas alone is not sufficient to ensure high levels of women in political office – what matters also is how they are implemented. In other words, the devil’s in the detail. Evidence from Scotland shows that post-1999, equality measures have been inconsistently applied and unevenly enforced – with women generally placed in lower positions on party lists and less likely to be selected to contest safe or winnable constituency seats. Thus for legislative quotas to deliver substantial increases in women’s representation in Scotland, they would have to be well-designed, appropriate to the electoral system, and accompanied by effective and robust sanctions for non-compliance. In some Spanish political parties, for example, a representative of the Women’s Section sits in the state-wide electoral commission and holds veto power, so party lists that don’t comply with legal and party quota regulations are rejected. In Ireland, where gender quotas are now law, parties who fail to comply with the 30% quota law will lose half of their annual state funding.

Lesson #3: Don’t take your eye off the ball. Lessons from devolution point not only to the importance of constitutional ‘moments’, or windows of opportunity, but also to the importance of what follows afterwards. Gains made can be easily reversed and memories are short. Indeed, while the ‘historical moment’ of devolution in 1999 opened up new opportunities for women’s political participation, it also resulted in a loss of momentum for women activists and their allies, making it difficult for campaigners to press for further reforms. In the absence of sustained commitment and strong party action on women’s representation, the previous highs of women’s representation at Holyrood are beginning to look like distant memories. As such, there is little room for complacency in the run-up to the 2016 elections.

Campaigners must also look beyond Holyrood – we cannot assume that any gains made at Scottish Parliament level will ‘catch on’ across the political system. Any push for legal quotas, then, must also include local government elections, where the proportion of Scottish women councillors has flat-lined, hovering around 22% until 2012, when the numbers rose slightly to just over 24%. There is already scope for action here, as local government elections in Scotland are a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament under the Scotland Act.

Any future efforts to legislate on the issue of women’s representation in Scotland should also require parties to ‘count for themselves’ – that is, to regularly report their performance on women’s and minority representation. Despite the espoused concern from most Scottish political parties about women’s political under-representation, it is left to others to count women, because parties don’t. The Westminster Speaker’s Conference on parliamentary representation which reported in 2010 recommended that parties be required to report candidate gender and ethnicity breakdowns every six months (recommendation 25) and that parties should publish a gender/diversity breakdown, together with targets (recommendation 26). These recommendations should be adopted in Scotland at all political levels – the public reporting by political parties, local councils and parliaments of the gender and ethnicity breakdowns of candidates and elected members would serve to keep the issue and party performance in public view.

Women in Scotland have already travelled a distance, but still have a long way to go. The time for change is now.

About genderpol

The blog of the Gender Politics Research Group, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh - and friends
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