Labour, women and the Scottish Parliament

KATE FINLAY warns that Scottish Labour must take urgent action to stop women being left behind in the race for Holyrood


As the party observes the debris of the Scottish elections, how do we move forward with declining women’s representation?

Seven weeks ago Labour suffered its worst result in Scotland since 1931. Out-manoeuvred and out-thought, we failed to match the slick SNP machine which exploited our weaknesses so effectively. However, one of the less observed results of this election is that for the first time since devolution, women in the Scottish Parliament’s Labour Group (SPLP) went into the minority. What is more troubling is that without robust and urgent measures put in place, female representation in the Scottish Parliament may go into terminal decline.

At the start of the Scottish Parliament in May 1999, Scottish Labour was a beacon of equality – an example to the other parties. At that election Labour took a unique opportunity to select candidates to ensure there was an even gender balance in the new SPLP.

However, since that high point women have struggled to make their voices heard in the Scottish Labour Party. Perhaps there was a feeling that, after the struggles of the nineties to ensure women were in the Scottish Parliament, the battle was won and there were much bigger battles to be fought in government.

Because of this level of apathy Scottish Labour has failed to nurture its female activist base. Over the last six years, I have listened to several female Labour MSPs tell me and my contemporaries that we are the future of the Scottish Labour Party, that we are the people who will inherit their legacy. But without proper support mechanisms in place, how can women make progress in an increasingly male-dominated Scottish political scene? Many female MSPs stood down in 2011, either through choice or by losing seats at the election. My fear is that in 2016, like in 2007 and 2011, they will all be replaced by male candidates.

Let’s look at the facts and figures, courtesy of Engender: in the last Scottish election Labour stood 20 female candidates in 73 constituencies, a share of 29 per cent. In the constituencies we are level with the SNP while the Liberal Democrats, a party opposed to positive action, were at 30 per cent. When we look at our list candidates, Labour fairs much better at a rate of 45 per cent, compared to the SNP’s meagre 26 per cent.

Coincidentally, the list statistics mirror the overall number of women representing these parties in the Scottish Parliament. Ironically, the less successful Labour was on May 6, the more proportional the Labour group became. The major difference was that while positive action was used for the list, we failed to implement any positive action measures for constituencies.

In seat after winnable seat, where there was no sitting candidate, Constituency Labour Parties selected men to represent them. Perhaps the questions we have to ask are: why are women not selected for constituencies? And why do so many of our candidates come from the same mould of councillors and local apparatchiks, men who have risen to become the “favoured son” in their areas?

There are brilliant and hard working women in the party, but they are routinely overlooked at Holyrood level. If we ignore this problem the terminal decline in the number of women at Holyrood will become inevitable.

If we want to reverse this trend, there are steps that the party and the SPLP can take to ensure a strong female voice at Holyrood:

  • Candidate training for women;
  • A functioning women’s network, accessible to all women;
  • Labour MSPs mentoring women to become the new face of Scottish Labour.

Where we organise, we win through. There is so much our party must do in light of the election result, but this issue cannot be kicked into the long grass. If we do we will pay the price at the next election.

The Scottish Labour Party must move forward from 2011, but please, don’t leave women behind.

Kate Finlay is a Labour Party activist and a former Secretary of the Edinburgh City Labour Party. A graduate of Edinburgh and Strathclyde Universities, she is now returning to university to become a teacher. She tweets as @kate_finlay.

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7 thoughts on “Labour, women and the Scottish Parliament

  1. The three steps you mentioned are all positive ways of getting more females elected and I don’t think you would find many people who disagree.

    I still think we have to find ways of encouraging more women to take the first steps towards becoming active in the party. We need to ensure we put forward the best women candidates, not the only women candidates.

  2. I agree, and I think the idea we had in 1999 of twinning constituencies so that we had 50% male candidates and 50% women candidates was a good one.

    However we must ensure better training for ALL candidates, and better support.

  3. It would be great if we had a woman leader. My choice now would be Jackie Baillie. She is by far the most able and intelligent MSP we have now.

  4. Our lists are more representative than our constituencies because we have adopted proactive, positive measures such as zipping. The measures proposed in this post are supportive of women candidates, but do not address structural issues with gender discrimination – there is a significant body of evidence that woman suffer a penalty at all stages from selection to election.

    I don’t believe twinning of constituencies, at least as currently implemented, is going to be enough – to improve the gender balance we surely need to ensure that women are selected in winnable seats?

    The final issue is a need to raise the profile of women within the shadow cabinet, and providing role models generally. We’ve fallen into a situation where the focus is all on the leader and the members of the shadow cabinet have a very low profile.

    1. The other option, and its one that has proved controversial for Westminster seats is all-women shortlists. Again, its about winnable seats, its no good doing that in a load of no-hope seats where we need to come from 3rd or 4th to win.

      However, the aim should be to have 50% of our MSPs being female.

  5. Thanks for all the comments on the article, I do believe it is a really important issue that needs to be addressed.

    I agree with all the comments made. We have to select the best women, not the only women, and a good start would be to encourage more women to join our party. Considering our core beliefs, that shouldn’t be too hard.

    In my opinion AWS is the way to go as I believe that twinning would not go for enough this time. However twinning may have to be the compromise.

    As for women in the shadow cabinet, well, they have taken a back seat since Wendy resigned. But there are very able women in that cabinet, such as Jackie Baillie and Sarah Boyack. Better promotion of them would be a good start.

  6. This is one of the best written blogs on Labour Hame. Miss Finlay is someone that isnt in denial and swinging the sword of brutality against the SNP, rather she is looking at where we have gone wrong, and where we can improve, sometimes its better to have new people with fresh views.

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