A great big burd peck on both cheeks to Plaid Cymru’s new leader, Leanne Woods AM. I have to confess not having paid much attention to Plaid’s leadership contest – more fool me.
Not only is Leanne only 40 but she is well left-of-centre, definitely on the independence side of the Plaid movement, an AM from the south of Wales. And a republican and proud to show it. Wow.
Plaid now has an all-woman line-up at its top. I had the pleasure of meeting Jill Evans last year in Strasbourg, and as well as being an MEP, she is also the party’s President. Then there is Helen-Mary Jones, the party’s chairperson and Rhuanedd Richards, its Chief Executive. Double wow.
I can’t help thinking the women in the party have got themselves organised and conducted a bit of a coup. Sisterhood and solidarity. Triple wow.
Leanne Woods appears to have succeeded by appealing to young party members and using online platforms – sound familiar? – to sprint from being rank outsider to outright winner. Her acceptance speech hit all of my right spots and she does seem to be signalling a big shift in approach. The i-word was mentioned; so too was the highly unfashionable “free”.
Having learned from their sister party up here, maybe they could teach the SNP a few tricks too.
If Leanne Woods’ election was a good news moment, then seeing the serried ranks of Edinburgh’s SNP council candidates in all their monochrome glory in the local campaign paper was a low one.
Of 22 candidates, only three are women. That’s an appalling 13% of the total. If all the candidates in the capital city are elected, and all 43 of the Glasgow candidates are, in our two biggest cities in the land, a paltry 15% of SNP councillors will be women (7 of Glasgow’s 43 are women). In the biggest party in the country, with the largest membership, it is shocking.
Which is not to suggest that the gender balance in the other parties will be much better after the local government elections. And it adds to the pretty dismal showing across the board at the Scottish Parliamentary elections last year. Gender balance at Holyrood improved ever-so-slightly from its previously worst ever level in 2007 of 33% to 34% but that was largely a fluke caused by the SNP’s majority win, resulting in more women coming through the Labour regional list route.
It all adds to the pressure on parties to “do something”. Pressure, it has to be said, being brought to bear largely by the Electoral Reform Society which today (in the Guardian) accused the main political parties of “failing to push for more women” in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments. Indeed, the ERS goes further in accusing them of allowing the issue of equal representation to “fester” and showing “open hostility or indifference“. Strong stuff but not undeserved.
No party in Scotland now practises positive action to try and deliver equal gender balance in its representation in the Parliament. And it has had an impact in causing a generally downward trend in the number of women MSPs.
As far as the SNP is concerned, there is definitely a move on to win a yes vote from more women in the independence referendum. This weekend, there will be a major pitch to the mother in your life – to coincide cheesily with Mother’s Day – involving a Mother’s Day e-card and a challenge to women members and social media supporters to send it on to ten more mums. Yeah, cos this is a woman’s problem to be solved by the women already connected to the party. And not by the blokes who currently dominate.
It’s a good idea and it’s a start, but really it’s too superficial to produce more than a temporary filip (though I’ll happily be proved wrong). Marketing is only one part of the solution. The claims to be on mammies’ side look pretty threadbare when set aside the reality that is the low number of council candidates in the forthcoming local election.
Such measures are only skindeep: the SNP and indeed, other political parties have to do something far more fundamental to change the nature, look and membership of their parties for good. And if they won’t do so willingly, well the European Parliament might be about to make them.
On Tuesday, MEPs passed a series of resolutions aimed at tackling gender inequality. One of them involves setting electoral quotas. These have successfully been applied in Spain, France, Belgium, Slovenia, Portugal and Poland and according to Sophia in’t Veld, the MEP from the Netherlands who proposed the resolution, should now be considered for all member states. A second resolution, also passed on Tuesday, proposes to apply “binding measures and sanctions… at national and EU level… to ensure gender parity in political decision-making, including electoral lists and top EU positions“. The resolutions were laid during a debate on the Parliament’s 2011 annual report on gender equaltiy in the EU. Interestingly, the Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said that proposals to create such measures “may be put forward later this year“.
Whether or not these manoeuvrings at European level ultimately result in action is debatable: I struggle to see the male-dominated world of the European Council where power lies, voting like the proverbial turkeys but there is definitely movement on this issue. And not a moment too soon.
Current levels of women’s representation at all levels of politics in the UK – the fab four at the top of Plaid Cymru aside – are woeful, and the parties seem incapable or unwilling or simply clueless about how to address them. Even where there is some commitment to and activity on addressing the matter, it will struggle to achieve any traction in parties which are remarkably resistant to internal change.
As Ms in’t Veld remarked during the European Parliament debate: “Spontaneously it ain’t gonna happen: colleagues, it is now time to act“.
Couldn’t have put it better myself: it’s time to bring on the girls.