Equality is not a favour, it is a right

If we truly are progressive nation, and a progressive party, we must get to grips with gender equality argues SUSAN DALGETY


As a young Labour activist I airily dismissed party quotas for women as a distraction from the real battle against poverty. “If a woman is good enough she’ll get selected,” I opined with all the arrogance and lack of insight of a thirtysomething in a hurry.

How wrong I was.

It was a courageous African female politician who made me see sense. The Honourable Soline Nyirahabimana helped write Rwanda’s 2003 constitution – the legal framework for a country recovering from the horror of genocide.

In it women are guaranteed: “at least thirty percent of posts in decision making bodies.”

“Why?” I asked Soline, when I interviewed her in Kigali a couple of years ago.

She looked at me and smiled. “Equality is not a favour, it is a right,” she said.

Quotas work – Rwanda is now the only country in the world where women are in the majority in its parliament.

A few weeks after that conversation I picked up a Sunday newspaper and saw a recent photograph of Gordon Brown’s cabinet.

Two women were conspicuous amid the cabal of glowering men.

Two women in a Labour Cabinet in 2009 – more than a century after our party had been established to fight for equality.

I was ashamed.

Here in Scotland things did get a bit better…for a while.

The groundbreaking 50-50 rule of 1999 saw the Labour Party return 28 women MSPs and 28 men, helping boost the Parliament’s female representation to nearly 40 percent. But the 2011 results have continued the downward trend of 2007. Only 34.1% of the newly-elected MSPs are women.

Scotland is going backwards, hardly the sign of a progressive nation.

But Scottish Labour is a progressive party and our track record in gender equality is still the best in the parliament. Seventeen of our current group of 37 MSPs are women – almost matching our 1999 achievement.

The SNP on the other hand have only 18 women MSPs out of a group of 68. Maths has never been my strong point, but I reckon that means barely more than a quarter of Nationalist MSPs are women.

But if the SNP is silent on equality, there is no need for us to be.

Last January the cross-party committee set up by the House of Commons to make recommendations on equality of representation argued that if political parties failed to make significant progress on women’s representation at the 2010 general election, Westminster should give serious consideration to the introduction of prescriptive quotas, to ensure that “all political parties adopt some form of equality guarantee in time for the following general election”.

Now I doubt if David Cameron, or his sidekick Nick Clegg will pay much heed, but Scottish Labour has a track record of leading the way in public policy, from council housing to the smoking ban.

We should now argue for an inquiry into how gender equality can be achieved in the Scottish Parliament in time for 2015; and while we are at, in our council chambers too.

The Parliament’s Equalities Committee, led by Labour’s redoubtable Claudia Beamish, could lead that inquiry. By all means, let us have a national conversation, but let’s make it about equality, not national identity.

Susan Dalgety is a writer and communications adviser specialising in international development and women in politics. She joined the Labour Party in 1980 and still believes in the power of people to change the world.

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4 thoughts on “Equality is not a favour, it is a right

  1. I can’t agree – if there was a quota like that, then for example, I could be denied a place because of my gender. That is not equality, that’s discrimination.

    You were right in your thirties, things like that may seem to “work”, but it is entirely artificial. You’re not creating real equality, you’re just giving it the impression, and it will not change attitudes.

    Besides, if we are to set firm quotas for women, should we do the same for members of the LGBT or BME communities? Ensure that there is an adequate quotient of disabled people? That idea, is frankly ludicrous.

    I voted for a woman to be my MSP. She won, and continues to do an absolutely sterling job. But that has nothing to do with her gender.

    If we want equality, we must remove the obsession with targets and labels and allow things to progress entirely on merit.

    1. I think that equality is important, and we need to do something about it. Our achievement in 1999 was not done by preventing people (of either sex) of standing – it was about working together to achieve an end.

      We now need to do something similar. Allowing things to progress entirely on merit has resulted int he current situation – where leaving things alone result in a decline in representation.

  2. On balance, I think All Women Shortlists or “twinned” selection processes are the best way forward on this. What causes the problems, I think, is the practice of how they are implemented. We should be making clearer much earlier which seats will be AWS/twinned so that local parties, individual activists and aspiring candidates can work towards an outcome they understand, rather than ending up with a party-splitting last minute conflict. Early decisions on which seats would be AWS, for example, would allow CLPs to develop and promote local women candidates over a reasonable period of time, building confidence and capability aong the way as well as enhancing “electability” (is that a word?). Male activists interested in pursuing selection can then also decide how best to balance their local efforts with activity in other seats. I think there is a Win-Win here. Early decisions are key.

  3. I agree with Gregor

    How do quotas encourage equality? They discriminate. What will Rwanda do next? 30% must be by males??

    There has to be a way of encouraging women to stand instead of stacking the cards in their favour. The only way I suppose you could do it is if at selection time there has to be 1 male and 1 female. You could even compete seperately up to that point and then it would be down to mediocracy that chooses which person is eligible to stand.

    Plus, I disagree with Soline Nyirahabimana in that “equality is a right, not a favour” since true “equality” does not exist anywhere in the world. So even my God doesn’t agree on this one. I am not as clever, nor as hard working, nor as charming, nor as good-looking, nor as rich, nor as linguistic, nor as athletic as many people. Yet should we make the olympics a quota’d system where non-athletes make up 30% of the numbers?!? Or will we remove the segregation of the sexes in sports and the olympics??

    If the woman is good enough, then she can persuade the association (or whoever) to select her. I don’t think there are any in-built prejudices like that anymore. Especially since Thatcher proved that you could do it!

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