Nae man can tether time nor tide

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”.

Send sexism off in the General Election campaign

Women for Indy send off sexism pledge

Yesterday, Women for Independence launched a campaign to root out sexism and send it off in the General Election campaign.  The movement – of which I am a part but not the only woman involved nor a leader nor a spokesperson – believes that everyone should welcome and foster the increased participation of women in democratic life, whether they campaigned for a Yes or a No vote in the referendum.

“Women should be able to raise their heads above the parapet without being a target for sexism or personal abuse.” you’d think that might be a given in 21st Century Scotland but apparently not. Already women have been targeted; some have been subjected to online abuse like this: “She’s what you might call a political prostitute whoring herself to whoever will have her.” (about a female SNP candidate).  There’s also a hideous cartoon doing the rounds grotesquely caricaturing a prominent Labour MP in the same vein.

Apparently, some women are carpet bagging and careerist now some activists have decided to do what men in their parties have been doing for generations – seeking to become candidates and MPs.

Frankly it’s unacceptable and it’s why Women for Independence is calling on all parties, all party leaders, candidates, activists and party staff to sign up to its campaign and code of conduct.  Already, the campaign is delighted to have secured the backing of the SNP and the Scottish Greens – it is hoped that Scottish Labour, which is at the heart of a great cross party initiative in the Scottish Women 50 50 group, will follow suit.  And of course, the Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats too.

The campaign calls on everyone involved or going to be involved in the UK General Election campaign in Scotland to pledge that:

  • they will conduct a democratic, respectful campaign that concentrates on political issues
  • no personal abuse will be directed at rivals
  • women will not be objectified or subjected to sexist language or behaviour
  • where there are panel discussions, all parties will insist on gender balance
  • where abusive or sexist behaviour occurs, parties will make clear that they do not tolerate it from their members, staff or representatives

The referendum saw women – of all ages, backgrounds and demographics – get involved in participative politics to an astonishing and probably unprecedented degree in Scotland.  It is in the interests of all who believe in democracy to ensure that this Westminster election campaign leads to even greater women’s participation and that women do not get put off ever getting involved again.

You can support the campaign by tweeting and sharing the pledge on your social media and if you’re a candidate sign up and say you’ve done so publicly.

Where have all the women gone?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Yesterday, the Herald Society Insight article posed the question, What kind of democracy overlooks what women have to say?  No one, it would appear, has any answers.  Yet, 52% of the population continues to be denied access to platforms and panels and more importantly, is not being allowed a voice, a say on a wide range of topical issues.

Some of us got fed up with broadcast media fielding all-male panels on current affairs programmes, particularly on the forthcoming independence referendum.  So we made a noise.  The answers were illuminating.  There aren’t enough women willing or capable, said some.  So, Lesley Riddoch published a list of names of women who might be willing to come on to programmes with a wide range of knowledge and experience to offer.  For a time, it was clear that efforts were being made.

But just as soon as we all shut up – off doing some dusting I shouldn’t wonder – the old ways crept back.  Men, men and more men.  No media outlet can claim anything like moral high ground here, though our two quality newspapers do better at including a range of women columnists week in, week out.  And very good they are too.  For the likes of me, they are a must read:  they cover different topics and they often take a different perspective on hot topics.  They add something to the mix – who knew?

Women, in informal and immediate ways, are fed up and beginning to take a stand.  Yesterday’s Herald article highlighted that a number of women who are fed up with institutions and agencies which organise conferences, seminars and events doing so with nary a glance towards gender balance, beginning to call them out. Hurrah!

And the current focus is on CoSLA’s new commission established to “renew local democracy”.  Announced with some fanfare last week, look at its membership and weep.  Four women out of twenty men.  No one from a black and ethnic minority background.  One person with a disability (or at least, prepared to identify themselves as such).  No one under 21.  No one over 65.  Indeed, all the people and groups largely excluded from local government representation posted missing.  And given that one of the issues hampering local democracy is its tendency to be “male, pale and stale” what better way to examine how to fix it by creating a panel that is largely “male, pale and stale”.

It’s also incredibly politically unbalanced, with Labour hogging more of the places than any other party, both in terms of actual elected representatives and the backgrounds of some of the non-elected participants.  It might as well exist in a parallel universe, one where STV doesn’t exist – and if some of the Labour members have their way, that might be one recommendation for the future.  A return to first past the post voting so that normal service of Labour dominance can be resumed.  Why the SNP is legitimising this by taking up a token place is beyond me.

Apparently, the original proposed panel had only one woman on it, until folk made noises off.  Now there are four.  This, it would appear, is progress to some.

Everywhere you look and listen in Scottish public life, women are as rare as pregnant pandas.  Except one.

Having set itself the goal of increasing the number of women selected for public appointments, the Scottish Government has made progress, real progress.  Last year, nearly 31% of women applied for a public appointment and 39% were appointed.  It’s still nothing like 50 – 50 but it’s better, because they are focusing on fixing it.  Not just with a token, temporary filip but with systemic measures designed to attract more women applicants and to ensure that as many women who are “best candidates” succeed as men.  The outcome is that now, 35% of all appointments to public bodies are women.  One hurrah then for the Scottish Government.  And an approach others can learn from.

Less helpful is the evidence that equal pay is still something of a goal rather than an achievement in NDPBs and indeed, within Scottish Government.  Unsurprisingly, the gap widens at the top.  Why and how it is acceptable for civil servants on the same grade, doing the same job to be paid differently in this day and age is a mystery – and in some cases, men are being paid less than women.  Why no harmonisation?  Why no equal pay claims supported by unions?

And kudos to all the political parties which selected a woman candidate to stand in the Dunfermline by-election.  Dunfermline’s next MSP is likely to be a woman, helping to improve the gender balance of our Parliament.  Two hurrahs.  By small steps, gains are made.  Though what we need are strategic approaches and indeed, positive action, to ensure that more women stand in elections at all levels.  It’s not women’s job to do this, but political parties.  Just as it is for media and public bodies and government at all levels to pay more than lip service to equality duties (in law for some) and moral responsibilities.

Because wherever we look in Scottish life, women are being discriminated against.  In public life, in allowing their voice and experience to be heard in the debates of the day, in pay and in representation.  This is Scotland in the 21st Century, a country which prides itself in its egalitarian outlook, where the reality is somewhat divorced from the spin.  It’s shameful.