Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Where are all the women?

The candidates for the Scottish council elections are all signed up and the SNP are promising change in town halls across Scotland.  Few are betting against SNP gains this May.

You would think the fact that the SNP have ‘a record number of candidates almost 50 per cent more than 2007’ would mean plenty more room for women.

Glasgow city council – their number one target – ‘is at the heart and central to [the SNP] vision of a progressive, fairer and more democratic Scotland’.  A progressive vision with room for only seven women out of 43 candidates. Half as many women as Labour.

In Edinburgh, our capital city, the SNP have three women candidates. In Dundee, the self proclaimed ‘SNP city’, just two women make the list of SNP hopefuls.

Inverclyde SNP launched their candidates pledging an ‘aptitude for change’.  You can’t help wondering what ‘change’ they have in mind. Inverclyde SNP candidates?  Lads nine.  Lassies nil.

The SNP have the dubious honour of being the most manly party in Britain. Seven out of  ten SNP members are men. And historically, the SNP party tend to get their support from men.

The only SNP leader to nearly get equal votes was John Swinney in 2003. Salmond’s 2007 achievement was to bring back the male vote. Men like him but women seem less impressed.

The most recent YouGov poll shows a clear contrast.  Voting intention in Scottish parliament constituencies show the SNP clear ahead with men. However, in a boost for Johann Lamont, more women support Scottish Labour.

In the 1990s Labour rank and file were demanding positive action in their party – resulting in twinned constituencies, zipped lists and an historic breakthrough for women’s representation for Scottish Labour in the Scottish parliament.   The SNP had a special conference in 1998, only to have similar proposals rejected by the rank and file – resulting in their leadership forcing a compromise to zip lists to save their membership from themselves.

The SNP gender balance has been unimpressive ever since. In 2011 the SNP won an outright majority with 67 MSPs. Just 19 are women.  Labour have 37 MSPs and 17 of those are women.

Nothing suggests this problem is high on Salmond’s list of priorities. He was, after all, the overwhelming choice of those manly members.

Salmond’s historic early cabinets have no equality record to be proud of.  While the UK cabinet was getting it in the neck for having just four women. Salmond was fighting the 2011 Scottish election with one in his.

He also failed to tackle the problem with cabinet reshuffles. When education secretary Fiona Hyslop was bumped she was replaced with Mike Russell. Even today, his expanded cabinet has just two women.

It should not come as a surprise. This is one of the few parties in Britain never to have a woman leader. They are the party that has only sent six women to Westminster in the last 45 years. With three of them coming from the same family.  The other 21 MPs were men. They have just a single woman MP now.

In fairness, the SNP are waking up to the problem.

They push forward their women politicians like Joan McAlpine MSP.  Nicola Sturgeon, deputy leader, is promoted as a joint leader in an attempt to soften Salmond. She is a respected politician and her pitch at the SNP 2012 Spring conference was unashamedly to women voters.  The SNP even sent campaign mothers day cards.

But as ever with the SNP you can’t help feeling it’s all gloss. Underneath they have never really dealt with their man problems.

No amount of presentation is going to stop Scotland being run by men. This problem runs deep in Scottish politics and particularly deep in Scottish Nationalist politics.

It’s about the substance stupid.

Less women support independence. The cliche is that it’s a man’s game. Independence means foreign affairs, defence and economic policy being transferred to the Scottish parliament. These are the concern of men.  Devolution means health, education and public safety. Softer emotional policy and the concern of women. Thus why less women support the SNP.

But now that academics are turning their research budgets to all things independence. The emerging evidence suggests the opposite. Women tend to vote with rational economic heads. Its men who are more likely to vote with an emotional Braveheart.

It does make you wonder that if the SNP had dealt with its equality issues before now they may have a more credible economic argument. Do they need an ex-RBS economist man or just more women in their party?

Before Labour get tribal we should reflect that we too have no women standing for Inverclyde council – a council that boasts no women councillors at all – how on earth did we not see that was a problem? Also, at the 2011 Scottish parliament election Labour allowed constituencies that were represented by women to be slowly taken over by men. In fact, had Labour won more constituencies in 2011 much of the equality work of our devolution pioneers would have had a severe setback.

But neither should we accept that all parties are the same on equality. They are not.  The SNP’s gloss hides a reactionary manly politics which leaves them and their project vulnerable.

Obviously they need the votes of women to get across the referendum finish line and they cannot possibly claim to be ‘Scotland’s party’ when, at best, they aspire to represent half of it. As for the argument they are a ‘beacon of progress’. On this evidence, gie’s peace.

Women are taking the brunt of this recession. Support for families is being attacked across the UK. Scotland has some of the highest childcare costs. And women are being pushed out of the political debate.

Ask yourself this:

If the SNP were to win a referendum, where Scottish men voted for their Braveheart independent Scotland but Scottish women voted to stay in the UK for rational economic reasons. Would Salmond have his mandate to go down to the UK, with his team of men, to start negotiations with the UK coalition team of men, to agree the Scotland everyone has to live in?

Surely even the SNP Inverclyde lads should man up and see that this is a problem.

Danny Phillips is an independent writer and researcher for campaigning organisations in Scotland. He was special adviser to first minister Jack McConnell 2003-2007

Photo: Scottish government

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Danny Phillips

is an independent writer and researcher for campaigning organisations in Scotland. He was special adviser to first minister Jack McConnell 2003-2007


  • women ? they’re all lining up to marry George Galloway aren’t they ? how many ‘s he up to now ?

  • “Before Labour get tribal we should reflect that we too have no women standing for Inverclyde council ”

    Being pedantic (as it doesn’t change the overall picture), there’s actually one. Vaughan Jones (Inverclyde South candidate) is a lady. The local paper says she’s the first female Labour candidate “in many years”.

  • An excellent article – I am a (very short) female candidate standing for Labour and have noticed that voters seem to prefer tall men?

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