Yesterday I met a redoutable 87 year old woman who was the primary carer of her 90 year old husband of 63 years. We chatted about the weather and her garden before getting down to business. Which party does she normally identify with? That would be Labour. She and her husband had voted Labour all their days, and voted No in the referendum, despite the exhortations of her Yes-daft “laddie” (he’s in his fifties). And who would she be voting for in the UK election in May? That would be the SNP. Or not exactly the SNP but “thon wee lassie”. She meant Nicola Sturgeon.
She had never been a fan of “him” she said but this lassie was of different mettle and there was a lot to like. She’s shaking things up a bit and with her in charge, the SNP will shake up a whole lot more, down there and here. We need things all shook up, she reckoned. And I like how she’s putting women first, she said.
Anyone wondering what difference Nicola Sturgeon has made in the early days of her leadership of her party and of Scotland, that’s it there in a nutshell. For every person opting positively to choose the SNP over Labour in this Westminster election, there is a minority – a significant minority, I’d hazard – who have been attracted to the SNP and what it stands for because of its leader and what she stands for. They like what they’ve heard so far and it shows in the polls too.
Most still show a continued gender gap among those who intend to vote SNP in May (such as in this Survation poll for Unison Scotland), but some show that gap having narrowed considerably (the most recent YouGov Scottish poll).
The First Minister has made no secret of her desire to deliver equality for women in Scotland. Her argument – that if you are good enough and work hard enough, being a woman should be no barrier to achieving success at work and in life – is the most explicit commitment made by any party leader in post-devolution Scotland to creating a fairer, better society for women. Implicit in her approach is the need to remove any barriers and plenty still exist.
Not least within her own party. Which explains the resolutions on the agenda for debate at the party’s Spring conference next weekend to create formal mechanisms to ensure a higher number of women candidates standing for the SNP and more of them elected.
I should declare an interest here – I’ve been a longtime proponent within the SNP of positive discrimination measures. The last time the party debated it (in 1998 I think), I was on the pro side of zipping male and female candidates on the regional list selections. That debate for me was characterised by the number of bright, young women speaking against the idea, adamant that they would get there under their own steam, thanks very much. Only one of them ever did.
So bravo for the new party leadership (and I include in this the NEC) for bringing the issue back for further, long overdue debate. This time, I hope the measures win the day.
Last time round, such is the contrary nature of the SNP membership, it more or less zipped anyway with a significant number of women elected to the Scottish Parliament. But without the issue being kept in focus, the numbers slipped. And have never been anything like balanced, let alone equal, for Westminster and local election selections.
As ever, there will be opposition. The same old, tired old arguments will be trotted out. It should be the best candidate who gets selected – which assumes that is usually a man – and there will no doubt be a coterie of women who shore that up by insisting on the right to do it for themselves, not wanting – ever – to feel they were chosen just because they are a woman. It won’t be until they are rejected as a candidate precisely because they are a woman that they will get it.
The party can rightly point to the progress made in recent times. There are more women than ever before selected for Westminster seats and that’s testament not just to the formidable talent in the ranks of approved candidates but also to the willingness of local party organisations to select the best person to represent them in their constituencies in this contest. But women still make up under 40% of the total candidates standing for Westminster and it will only be if we get into landslide territory on May 7th that signiificant numbers of them will be elected.
More women have joined the SNP creating a much more balanced membership; it has a 50-50 Cabinet; it has committed to changing the face of public boards and is encouraging private sector and charitable ones to do the same. All of this has come about – partly – because it has a female leader, because of what the party now stands for under her leadership and the policies it espouses.
A breakthrough was signalled at last party conference, when despite fierce opposition, a resolution was passed on gender balance in public life. I sat at home watching it all unfold and cried buckets at the conclusion, for it represented such a milestone.
Next Saturday, the SNP has the chance to show that it’s not just its leader who has mettle. That this is a party in tune with the mood abroad, prepared to lead on changing the nature of society by beginning with reforming its own structures. Before voting on this vital resolution and all the amendments, delegates should pause and consider where Scotland stands, what their party – and especially, their leader – stand for and where she and they want to lead their country to.
The SNP is at a juncture – is it thirled to it (and Scotland’s) past, stuck in the present or focussed on the future and creating a different party (and country) for the next generation to inherit? After all, a better, fairer society for all means exactly that, in all structures and circumstances.
To coin a phrase, moments like this in party histories are like “poppies spread”. They can choose to “seize the flower” before “its bloom is shed”. And in doing so, delegates might want to remember that “nae man can tether time nor tide”.