Guest Post: Will 2016 be a high point for women’s representation at Holyrood?

Holyrood debating chamberIt's polling day today for the Scottish Parliament election. Juliet Swann, Associate Consultant at McNeill & Stone, predicts what this will mean for women's representation.

Will 2016 be a high point for women’s representation at Holyrood?

The Scottish Parliament won plaudits in 1999 for electing 48 women out of the 129 MSPs, (37.2%). Since then however that percentage has fallen, indicating that the stance Labour took to balance the winnable seats between men and women in that first election was neither replicated by the other parties nor was there a consistent application of the principle of gender balance in the subsequent elections and selection processes.

Of late this complacency has been challenged. The election of Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s first woman First Minister, and her making a strong commitment to gender equality from the outset, as well as two other women leading the opposition parties, and both SNP and Labour appointing a 50:50 cabinet has caused women’s representation to become a talking point.

Prior to this election the only party using positive measures to achieve gender balance in every selection process was the Scottish Green Party. Labour’s 1999 efforts had been allowed to wither, and the SNP, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were sticking with ‘soft’ measures such as mentoring.

But Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale grasped the thistle and made positive measures part of the 2016 selection process. The constituencies of retiring SNP MSPs were all subject to All Women Shortlists. Labour have ‘zipped’ their regional lists. And even the Liberal Democrat’s Willie Rennie has conceded the party should use positive measures. In the latter case this is perhaps too little too late as it looks as if Holyrood will be mirroring Westminster with an all-male Liberal Democrat group after former MSP Mike Rumbles managed to top the Lib Dem list in the North East, pushing sitting MSP (and sole woman Lib Dem) Alison McInnes into second place.

The crux of the matter though is whether these measures have put women in a position to actually be elected on Thursday.

Of the 73 constituency seats, 30 look to be winnable by women candidates. They either have women standing for more than one of the major parties or the result is so predictable that the woman is all but guaranteed to be elected.

The regional lists are harder to predict, but there are about 24 possible women winners. A total of 54 women MSPs which would be a high water mark of 42% - still 8% short of 50:50 and 10% short of reflecting the make-up of the Scottish population.

But this does show that positive measures work. The SNP candidates in the 10% of constituency seats subject to All Women Shortlists all look very likely to win. In doing so, some constituencies will see their first woman MSP ever. Among them Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, and Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch in Highlands and Islands could see their first ever woman MSP or MP. The same is true of SNP women standing in Angus North and Mearns and Orkney who have previously only been represented by men at Westminster or Holyrood.

Labour’s predicted reliance on the list means their consistent zipping of their regional candidates (alternating women and men and ensuring that women lead the list in half the regions) should ensure a return to the high percentage (albeit a lower number) of Labour women that we saw in 1999.

The Greens too have zipped their regional lists, and women lead that list in three of the eight regions.

RISE have also both ensured gender balance on their regional lists and women lead the list in four regions. It’s unlikely to have much of an impact on the make-up of the Parliament but it’s a model others could do well to follow.

And of course Scotland is one of the first battlegrounds for the newly formed Women’s Equality Party. They are standing on the Lothian and Glasgow list, with both lists headed by women although they do have one male candidate. It’s unlikely either region will elect a Women’s Equality Party MSP but just having them in the conversation has definitely pushed equality and gender equality specifically up the campaign agenda. And until every party embraces 50:50 perhaps that’s exactly what’s needed.

The Lib Dems are unlikely to win more than one list seat in any region so that first place on the list is all important. The only region where a woman leads the Lib Dem list is West Scotland, where Katy Gordon is seeking election. She’ll be hoping she can win back the list seat lost by Ross Finnie in 2011, but on current polling that seems unlikely. The party can only hope that any future action can work to redress the shocking situation where the entire Liberal Democrat group of MPs and MSPs is male.

The Conservatives have consistently opposed positive measures to achieve gender balance in their elected representatives. And it shows in their candidates. In Highlands and Islands they have an all-male slate in the constituencies and on the regional list. In the North East their two women candidates are placed at 7 and 9, in West Scotland at tenth place, and even in Lothian the second placed woman behind Ruth Davidson is at ninth. Even if they do as well as predicted, Ruth could be one of only four Conservative women at Holyrood, two fewer than currently.

Just for contrast, men are guaranteed to win 42 constituencies, eleven of which have a choice of only men, compared to just two seats where voters can only choose women (and one of those, Edinburgh Central is cheating because there is a male Libertarian candidate, so really it’s one. One seat where there’s only women standing compared to eleven all male slates.)

So what does all this tell us? Politics started out as a male only occupation - despite access being opened up, this segregation has continued to have an impact. Just crossing our fingers and waiting for gender balance to naturally occur hasn't led to women being represented at anywhere near their percentage of the population at large. Business as usual would mean a child born today was collecting her pension before Westminster even got close to 50/50.

Holyrood has done better, mainly due to positive measures used by Labour in 1999. But the failure to maintain positive action, or to even start it on the part of some parties has caused the number of women MSPs to decline.

As the dominant party, the SNP's adoption of All Women Shortlists in seats where men were retiring will make a difference. Further positive action is still possible. Zipping the regional lists alongside continuing with AWS will provide more opportunities to acheive 50:50. The Scottish Government accepting the recommendation of the Women 50:50 campaign and setting quotas for 50:50 candidates that all parties must meet would achieve real and immediate change.

Meanwhile, ensuring a gender balanced slate of candidates for next year’s local elections should be the next priority for all parties. Women make up less than 25% of Scotland's elected councillors. At the very least any party standing two candidates in a ward should make sure one is a woman, and it would be ideal if we could not repeat the 2012 statistic that 1 in 7 local contests featured only men.

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