Here We, Here We, Here We … Go (Again): Women and the 2017 Local Government Elections

By Meryl Kenny, Fiona Mackay and Judith Sijstermans

ballot box

Another year, another missed opportunity to achieve equal representation in Scottish politics.

Not that you would know it from the media coverage and political spin of the 2017 council elections, with pundits and politicians alternatively claiming the results as a win for the SNP – as the largest party in Scottish local government – or the Conservatives – who made significant gains.

But was it a win for women? Here are the headlines figures:

  • Women’s representation in local government has increased, rising from 24% in 2012, to a new high of 29% in 2017.
  • Less than 1:3 Scottish councillors is a woman.
  • The performance of different parties on women’s representation varies dramatically – with the Greens and the SNP topping the ranks with 47% and 39% women respectively in local government, whilst the Conservatives lag behind with only 18% women.
  • No council has achieved equal representation overall. Midlothian council comes out best with 39% women. The wooden spoon goes to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, which has seen the election of a council composed entirely of white men.
  • 103 council wards across Scotland have no women representing them (29% of all council wards).

To be sure, some progress has been made, but the overall face of Scottish local politics remains ‘male, pale and stale.’ Indeed, looking beyond Scotland, we see wider trends of the persistent over-representation of men from majority groups in politics across the UK – evidenced most strikingly in the metro mayoral contests, where more Andys were elected (two) than women (zero).

How did the parties do?

As we reported in our preview of the local government elections, familiar patterns persist: with some parties taking women’s representation seriously, whilst others make little effort to address the issue, thus continuing to lag well behind.

Most noteworthy are the big strides made by the SNP on women’s representation at local government level: rising from 25% women elected in 2012 to 39% in 2017 (see Table 1). The party has the highest actual number of women councillors of any of the parties (169 – higher than all of the other major parties combined). Women made up more than half of the SNP’s new/non-incumbent candidates (53.5%) compared to around 1 in 4 (26.3%) of its sitting candidates. Eight out of 31 SNP council groups are 50% women or more – taken together, these trends suggest a step change for the party at local level.

Table 1: Councillors by Party, 2017

Party Women Total % Women (% 2012)
SNP 169 431 39.2% (24.7%)
Conservatives 50 276 18.1% (24.3%)
Labour 73 262 27.9% (26.1%)
Liberal Democrats 24 67 35.8% (36.6%)
Green 9 19 47.4% (28.6%)
Independent/Other 30 172 17.4% (15.2%)
Total 355 1227 28.9% (24.3%)
*2012 councillor figures are taken from Kenny, M. and F. Mackay (2012) ‘Less male, pale and stale? Women and the 2012 Local Government Elections’, Scottish Affairs, 80 (Summer), 20-32.

Also leading the pack were the Scottish Greens, who again had the highest proportion of women amongst its candidates of all the parties (45%, an increase from 41% in 2012) (see Table 2). 47% of Green councillors are women – an impressive achievement, albeit in the context of small numbers.

Meanwhile, Labour returned 28% women overall, a small improvement on their 2012 record at local government (26%). In the end, though, they were overtaken and outpaced by competitors, including the SNP, and in the context of heavy losses of seats overall. The Liberal Democrats equalled their 2012 performance on women’s representation, with women again making up 37% of the party’s councillors (and 33% of candidates, compared to 28% in 2012).

Bringing up the rear are the Scottish Conservatives, whose performance stands in stark contrast to all of the other major parties. In the end, only 18% of Tory councillors are women (compared to 21% of candidates). Indeed, in four council areas, the Conservatives ran no women amongst their candidates at all (Angus, Dundee, Stirling and the Western Isles).

The Scottish Tories faced criticism in the run-up to the 2017 elections for their poor performance on selecting women. The party’s answer (which we have heard before) cited Ruth Davidson as ‘living proof’ that the party was able to get women to the top, while also highlighting the role of the Women2Win campaign aimed at encouraging more women to stand. But while the Women2Win campaign has had an impact at UK level, in Scotland, the effects have not (as of yet) materialised. Only 22% of new/non-incumbent candidates for the party were women – a figure that was not significantly higher than the 18.3% of incumbent candidates who were women. And while the party saw more women elected to local government in 2017 than 2012, the party’s significant electoral gains this time around meant that the proportion of women returned decreased by six percent overall (from 24.3% to 18.1%).

The percentage of women amongst Independents/Other councillors remains low, at 17% (compared to 18% of candidates). These figures appear to bear out wider research on independent candidacies, which advantage individuals with access to time, money and political networks, most of whom tend to be men.

How do the councils look?

Turning to patterns of representation across local authorities, the picture is one of wide variation (see Table 3). No Scottish council has achieved gender balance overall – or, indeed, broken the 40% threshold. And, as already highlighted, 103 council wards have no women representing them (29%).

In 2012, only 5 of 32 Scottish councils had achieved levels of women’s representation of 30% or more. In 2017, this number has risen to 12 – top performers include (see Table 3):

  • Midlothian (38.9%)
  • Edinburgh (38.1%)
  • East Ayrshire (37.5%)
  • South Lanarkshire (37.5%)
  • Renfrewshire (37.2%)
  • Glasgow (36.5%)

Meanwhile, the laggards on women’s representation are:

  • Perth and Kinross (20%)
  • Dumfries and Galloway (18.6%)
  • Inverclyde (13.6%)
  • Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (0%)

What matters, of course, is not just how many women are selected by parties overall, but also where they are selected to run. We can see the importance of this in Edinburgh and Glasgow, which were key political battlegrounds, not only for the overall election outcomes but also in terms of women’s representation.

In Edinburgh, 52% of Labour candidates were women, with the Greens close behind at 47.1%, followed by the SNP’s at 37% women and the Conservatives at 23.8%. The Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green groups on Edinburgh council are all 50% women; compared to 37% of the SNP group and 22% of the Conservative group.

In Glasgow, 48% of Green candidates and 45% of SNP candidates were women, in contrast with 35% of Labour candidates and 26% of Conservative candidates. The resulting Green council group is now 57% women, followed by the SNP at 44%, and Labour at 33% women. The Tories made significant gains in Glasgow, increasing their tally from one to eight – but all of eight of their elected councillors are men. Newly elected Conservative councillor Ade Aibinu and SNP councillor Graham Campbell are the first ever black representatives elected to Glasgow’s city chambers.

Where does this leave us?

Despite the redrawing of the political landscape of local government in Scotland, and the changing fortunes of different political parties, the story on women’s representation remains much the same. Without commitment for action from parties across-the-board, progress will continue to be glacial.

Indeed, the Conservatives’ laissez-faire approach to women’s representation –in the context of a surge in their electoral fortunes (as in the 2016 elections) – had the effect of depressing the Scottish headline figures, negating much of the improvements made by other parties at individual level.

On the positive side: change is possible, particularly when political parties commit to addressing the ‘male, pale, stale’ composition of local councils. We know that key actors within parties are centrally important in winning internal arguments, as is external pressure in making women’s representation a matter for public scrutiny and party competition. But these windows of opportunity are seldom open for long, and women’s representation can be sidelined or crowded out in wider discussions of Brexit, IndyRef2 and snap General Elections. Indeed, very little of the post-council election coverage has engaged with or even mentioned issues of diversity and representation at local level.

Hence the title of this blog: here we, here we, here we…go again. We are reminded that we have (collectively) been counting women (and men) in Scottish politics for more than 20 years. Women’s representation still has not ‘caught on’. Whilst there have been breakthroughs (most notably in the early elections of devolution, with a high of 39.5% in 2003), for the most part it has been incremental change, stasis, or setbacks. We are still counting (in the absence of reliable gender breakdowns from party or official sources; never mind intersectional data); and we are still making the same arguments.

So here we go (AGAIN) – hopefully for the last time.

  • Our councils and parliaments should look like the people they represent and draw upon all talents.
  • The over-representation of men from majority groups is a significant and persistent political problem.
  • Solutions to that problem are available to us. The international and comparative evidence is clear – quotas work.

It is time.

Meryl Kenny is Lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh. Fiona Mackay is Professor of Politics and Dean and Head of the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh. They co-convene the Gender Politics Research Group at the university (on Twitter at @genderpol), and are steering group members of the Women5050 campaign for legal gender quotas in Scotland. Judith Sijstermans is a PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations at Edinburgh.

Additional Tables and Figures

Additional analysis of candidate and councillors figures can be found in the tables below.

Section 106 of the Equality Act sets out a statutory requirement for political parties to publish candidate diversity data, but this provision has not yet been brought into force. As we have argued elsewhere, there is a need for political parties and political institutions to be held to account and gather and publicly publish intersectional data on candidates and elected representatives.

We have compiled candidate and councillor information through official Notices of Poll published by each local authority, local media reports, party websites, and political parties themselves. We also cross-checked our data against other sources, including the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, which based their figures on the knowledge of Returning Officers.

We see this as the starting point, not the end point, of a more detailed analysis of diversity and representation in Scottish councils – and will be doing further analysis over the coming months. We welcome queries, corrections & further candidate data – to Meryl Kenny (M.Kenny@ed.ac.uk) or Judith Sijstermans (Judith.sijstermans@ed.ac.uk).

Table 2: Candidates by Party, 2017

Party Women Total % Women (% 2012)
Conservatives 81 380 21.3% (25.9%)
SNP 261 627 41.6% (23.9%)
Labour 144 453 31.8% (27.4%)
Liberal Democrats 82 247 33.2% (27.9%)
Green 98 218 45.0% (40.7%)
Independent/Other 119 647 18.4% (14.9%)
Total 785 2572 30.5% (23.4%)
*2012 candidate figures are taken from Kenny, M. and F. Mackay (2012) ‘Less male, pale and stale? Women and the 2012 Local Government Elections’, Scottish Affairs, 80 (Summer), 20-32.

Table 3: Councillors by Local Authority, 2017

Local Authority Women Total % Women
Aberdeen City 13 45 28.9%
Aberdeenshire 24 70 34.3%
Angus 6 28 21.4%
Argyll and Bute 11 36 30.6%
City of Edinburgh 24 63 38.1%
Clackmannanshire 4 18 22.2%
Dumfries and Galloway 8 43 18.6%
Dundee City 7 29 24.1%
East Ayrshire 12 32 37.5%
East Dunbartonshire 6 22 27.3%
East Lothian 6 22 27.3%
East Renfrewshire 5 18 27.8%
Falkirk 9 30 30.0%
Fife 25 75 33.3%
Glasgow City 31 85 36.5%
Highland 25 74 33.8%
Inverclyde 3 22 13.6%
Midlothian 7 18 38.9%
Moray 8 26 30.8%
Na h-Eileanan Siar 0 31 0.0%
North Ayrshire 9 33 27.3%
North Lanarkshire 22 77 28.6%
Orkney 3 21 14.3%
Perth and Kinross 8 40 20.0%
Renfrewshire 16 43 37.2%
Scottish Borders 7 34 20.6%
Shetland 5 22 22.7%
South Ayrshire 6 28 21.4%
South Lanarkshire 24 64 37.5%
Stirling 6 23 26.1%
West Dunbartonshire 6 22 27.3%
West Lothian 9 33 27.3%
Total 355 1227 28.9%
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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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