Guest blog: Indyref, women and politics (Indyref Thursday #5)

In the run-up to our event on 'gender equality, the referendum and beyond', we'll be publishing a weekly blog to correspond with our 'Scotland's futures' briefing papers series. This week, guest blogger Ann Henderson considers gender implications in terms of politics and power.

When reviewing the statistics for political representation for women in the UK and in Scotland, we have rightly been proud of the progress made when the Scottish Parliament was established. In 1999 our Parliament sat 4th in the world rankings on parliamentary representation, with 37.2% of our new Parliamentarians being female.

Not only that, but the diversity of those women’s backgrounds, coming from community, academia, science, education, voluntary sector, trade unions, charities, local government, and the violence against women sector, to name only some, brought a wider women’s voice into the early days of our Parliament. It wasn’t perfect - there was, and continues to be, serious under-representation from BME women, women with disabilities, and the full range of characteristics that define the lives of women in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament as an employer has made significant strides in this regard, continually monitoring and adjusting its own staff recruitment processes to make sure that it better reflects society as a whole.

But reflecting on the statistics requires us also to think about the purpose. Without those women in 1999 being central to both Scottish Government and the Parliament, we would not have moved so quickly to articulate and fund a policy on violence against women, with a gendered analysis at its core. In my view we would also not have moved quickly on Clause 28, (Section 2A in Scotland) which had been introduced under the Conservative Government in the 1980s, restricting the teaching of anything about homosexuality. The Scottish Parliament voted for repeal, 99 to17, in June 2000, standing firm against a massive onslaught from an aggressive campaign funded by an extremely prejudiced Brian Souter.

There are other examples, not only of political decisions which shaped and improved women’s lives, but also of a parliamentary environment which welcomed women’s organisations, women from communities and women from a whole range of employment sectors. Scottish Government, with Jack McConnell as First Minister, in 2002 signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the STUC, which to this day facilitates closer and more rapid lines of communication with Government. It has promoted discussions with the trade unions on the Living wage, the economy, the future of manufacturing, childcare, and in 2012 triggered the joint STUC/Scottish Government Women’s Employment Summit.

In the Scottish trade union movement, women have held a majority of seats on the STUC General Council for the last three years, and positive action measures, including the use of reserved seats, continue the political commitment that was so forcibly demonstrated in the years that led up to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, through the 50/50 campaign. The 50/50 campaign, initiated by the STUC with the simple principle that our new Scottish Parliament should reflect the society it represented with 50% female MSPs, won cross party support, and although all political parties did not then act on it, the decision of Scottish Labour to field an equal number of candidates was largely responsible for the high female numbers in the first Parliament in 1999. Currently the STUC Black Workers Committee, and the STUC LGBT Committee, are chaired by women, and the STUC Women’s Committee and Conference continue to play an important role in campaigning for women’s equality.

The current referendum debates have refocused attention on what kind of Scotland we want to live in, and the part we play in a worldwide progressive movement. In publishing two papers as part of the ‘A Just Scotland’ consultations, the STUC has encouraged trade union members to ask questions of both the Yes and No campaigns, reasserting the need to redistribute income, promote workplace and collective bargaining, and promote policies which tackle inequality and discrimination. Delegates at the 2013 STUC Women’s Conference questioned a panel of speakers on a wide range of issues, having previously signed up to the Gender and Constitutional Futures Scottish Universities Insight Institute seminars.

The extension of PR to local government has brought other challenges, unable to shift the numbers for women represented on local councils, and arguably less accountability for citizens in each local authority, faced with multi-member wards and coalitions that nobody elected directly. Legislation could be introduced to enforce a greater degree of proportionality for women at local level, and it will be interesting to see who champions that in the years ahead. There is not agreement about whether powers to do this lie already in Scotland or require Westminster sanction, but it is definitely time for women to campaign on a cross party basis for 50/50 within every local council. At the end of the day, the 50/50 campaign that shaped the first Scottish Parliament, achieved its success without using legislation, but by winning the argument.

More women active in political life and public life is essential and not disputed. The question we have to continue to ask though, is for what purpose? No government in Scotland (or the UK) has succeeded in recent years in tackling the fundamental income inequalities that exist, in effectively redistributing and redefining wealth, nor have we yet created a world in which women and girls can live free from fear of sexual assault or abuse.

But my concern is that, in reflecting on statistics and political life, we do not often enough celebrate the progress we have made. Earlier this week, as I was considering how to approach this piece, the radio was carrying an interview about Ferguson Shipbuilding in Greenock going into liquidation. The voice was that of a young woman, an apprentice pipe fitter, and as she described the feeling of turning up for work to find the gates locked, I was overwhelmed - both with pride that our movement has provided the opportunities for girls to pursue these careers, but with anger too, as our society fails again to invest in manufacturing, engineering, and secure employment.

I see women and hear women’s voices everywhere. I left the house that morning to travel by train to Glasgow, I bought my rail ticket from a female booking office staff member, the train driver was a woman, as was the staff member selling tea and coffee on the train. The majority of staff in the STUC office are female. As we know, our society depends on the paid and unpaid work of women.

How do we listen to those voices, what place do they have round every table – how are we reflecting and changing policies in response to those voices?

So, for me, whilst the numbers do matter in our political institutions, let’s not wait until the numbers are rebalanced in those institutions, there are battles to be fought and spaces to be reclaimed right now.


Ann Henderson is an Assistant Secretary at the STUC, having been there since 2007. Prior to that, Ann worked in the rail industry, in community development, and in the Scottish Parliament, and has a long record of activity in the women’s movement.

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