How do we fix the gender deficit in our political culture?

We should be thankful, I suppose, for small gains.  The excellent website, Gender Politics, has pored over the results from the local government elections and found that it’s all now a little “less male, pale and stale“.

In 2007, just over 1 in 5 councillors elected were women;  in 2011, it rose to nearly 1 in 4.  As Drs Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay suggest, “these numbers represent a marked improvement on previous elections – and a record performance since the mid 1990s..” but “… the general trend remains one of stalled progress“.

While all progress is good towards achieving equal represenation, it is also worth considering how many women occupy high profile positions in local politics.  How many female council leaders will we have?  A mental tally suggests very few.  We might, though, end up with a female Lord Provost (sic) in Glasgow in Cllr Sadie Docherty and the key Edinburgh positions are yet to be determined.

Elsewhere, women’s voices in the Scottish political domain are muted.  In both of Scotland’s national Sunday newspapers yesterday, much of the comment and analysis on topical political issues was provided by men.  And while it was a joy to read and to mull over the thoughts and wisdom of Iain McWhirter and Euan McColm (the latter especially, whose own distinct voice has been missing for too long from the political scene), it would be nice, just occasionally, to be able to read what a woman (a non partisan one) thinks of the big issues of the day.

There are more women opining in the blogosphere – Caron’s Musings, Village Aunties, the Shoogly Peg, and maself of course – and theirs are some of the blogs I always make a point of reading, alongside a host of ones written by men.  Because often, I get a different take on things.

Women see things differently, they vote slightly differently, different issues (sometimes only be degrees) influence them.  We are a 50-50 population and that should be reflected in our political population, from who represents us at all levels to who provides analysis.

Of course, views and opinions are not split on gender lines, just as they are not necessarily split by geographical location, age, ability, sexual orientation or identity or ethnic background.  People with a range of characteristics, often poles apart, can and do have similar views and political standpoints.

But the fact remains that a healthy democracy is a diverse one, and our democracy and all its component parts should reflect that.

We could simply pass a law insisting upon 50-50 representation and while the stick approach might be the quickest way to solve the problem, by itself, it would not work.  We also need a cultural shift:  we need parties to see that they have to change in order to encourage women into front line politics.

There are many within our parties who see positive discrimination as undesirable.  Yet, left to their own devices, parties have an innate ability to prefer blokes.  Labour’s policy of twinning constituencies in 1999 achieved gender balance in their MSP group, but it was a one off measure.  In 2011, when there was a significant turnover of constituency candidates, in every single seat previously held by a woman, the local parties chose men to replace them.  Indeed, somewhat ironically, the scale of the defeat to Labour in the constituencies resulted in more women being elected through the regional lists than everyone had expected.

Even the SNP, which has long resisted deliberate measures to achieve gender balance in its elected ranks, has moved to try and increase the number of women candidates coming forward.  NEC member, Julie Hepburn, has been put in charge of developing an equality strategy and it will be interesting to see what she brings forward.

One party, the Scottish Greens, is committed to equal representation and provides a 50-50 split of candidates.  But even their approach is not foolproof, with more men than women being elected as councillors.  Still, we should all look at what the Scottish Green Party does and learn, if not copy, its approach.

All this is good.  But it is not enough.  Other things need to change if more women are to be encouraged to become actively involved in politics and to become elected representatives.

Key to that is asking women – and men – for their views.  Do women treat politics differently?  Do they access news and views differently?  Do they read any of the political comment in our newspapers?  Do they march, protest, write letters, read blogs?  What influences how they vote and who they vote for?

What do people think are the reasons why fewer women get involved in party politics?  What might change that?

It’s not enough for the parties to try and address these thorny issues internally;  the women, after all, who are currently active in politics (myself included) are probably not very representative of the wider population.  So talk to women and men whose sole engagement with politics is to vote.

One of the key conundrums is that women are usually pretty engaged in their local communities.  It’s not that they’re not active, they’re just not active in political parties.  Women – or at least, more than in parties – are to be found engaged in a wide range of community interests:  churches, schools, galas, playgroups, book groups, halls, youth groups.  Ask them why they are prepared to get involved in running, fundraising, advocating on behalf of such community interests but have never considered getting involved in party politics.

And maybe therein lies one of the solutions.  The configuration of party politics, how it engages members and supporters, identifies candidates, supports and trains them, is perhaps one of the problems.  Are there things that parties can learn from other organisations which provide more welcome spaces for women  (culturally as well as literally) and enable women to represent them in as many numbers as men?

There’s no quick fix to all of this.  For too long, we’ve been in denial that there’s a problem, yet over a decade of elections in wholly Scottish elections at parliament and local government show that progress, if evident at all, is slow.  Indeed, there are also fewer women political journalists in Scotland than there ever were, yet more women in journalism generally.  What’s that about?

The lack of women candidates and elected women representatives are issues intrinsically linked to the wider problems of disengagement and disenfranchisement from our political culture.  For too long, in the parties and in the media, politics has been something practised by a relatively small group of people, most of them men.

It’s not healthy at any level and we need to do all we can to change it.

Be careful what you coalesce for

If it had been me – and it’s probably a good job it wasn’t and isn’t – I’d have taken a few soundings locally.

I’d have asked the people who had just voted for me what they wanted.  I’d have consulted community leaders and influencers for their opinion.  And importantly – given that I was probably elected by only about 10% of the people living in my ward – I’d have asked a representative smattering of people who didn’t vote for me and didn’t vote at all.

And I’d have factored those views into the whirl of instruction from the party central.  For Labour and the SNP, that appears to have amounted to a Get Power strategy.   And just over a week after the elections, the colour of local government in Scotland is becoming clear.  I hesitate to suggest that the rainbows breaking out all over the country will last for the next five years, because I doubt many of them will.  Scotland’s need in the medium and long term has lost out to short term advantage, fuelled purely by party political considerations and attendant tribal enmities.

The usual mould for coalitions is a big party and a wee one or several ones, and that is what we have largely got.  A sprinkling of majorities aside and that seemingly noble experiment in Edinburgh, it’s either SNP or Labour leading, with Tories, Lib Dems and independents trying out their committee chairs for size.  It’s all rather worked out better for Labour who appear to have been more willing to buy off/in the wee-er groups.

But these are not usual times. In two elections in quick succession, one national, the other local, the section of the populace that voted has largely rejected the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  Even the number of Independents has diminished.  They have voted for more SNP councillors and significantly in small party terms, for more Greens.  Yet, both have been frozen out.

The SNP is harrumphing that it’s all a Unionist plot.  On the surface, it does rather look like this but it’s probably more complicated than that.  Negotiations involve giving way on key policies and more practically, key convenorships.  I’m not sure the psychology of all this sits well with the mindset of many in the SNP.  There’s also the issue of naivete, in its truest sense.

A lot of the SNP councillors elected are new and unfamiliar with the wiles and guiles of local government.  Some groups might have struggled with the negotiations and their concept and purpose.

The Greens, meanwhile, appear happy to occupy the high moral ground of principle.  Some of their groups of one are also new and would not necessarily have wanted to jump straight into administration while learning their craft.  If this has happened, then expect a slide back next time round.  A wee party on the up needs to get its hands on the levers as quickly as it can.  As Councillor Steve Cardownie pointed out this week, the point of politics is power.  Not power in itself, but power to achieve a purpose.  And if you stay on the sidelines you can be ignored.

On the opposite side, so alien is the raison d’etre of Green politics to the establishment parties that in some areas, they will simply not have been factored into the mix.  Ignoring the electoral arithmetic from last Thursday and the trends in favour of donning comfy old political slippers is a dangerous approach.

Maybe this is what folk want but I doubt it.  Had the councillors just elected consulted people in their communities about the big issues bothering them and what influenced how they voted on 3 May, they would have heard a lot about fear.  Fear of cuts, fear for jobs, fear for the future.  If they had bothered to ask who they are most fearful of, the Tories would have been the response.  It’s become a reflexive reaction that might not bear much connection with reality, but it is what it is.

Moreover, people who might once have been proud to call themselves Liberal Democrat voters now sneeringly refer to the party in pejorative terms.  As a credible force in the current political landscape, the Lib Dems are finished.  They are on the slide and haven’t yet reached rock bottom.

And more than anything else, people want security and stability.  They want reassurance that there are people in charge who know what they are doing and who can be trusted to put local interests first.  And the parties people trust, by and large, are the SNP and Labour – something the groups in Edinburgh almost uniquely managed to grasp, either by necessity or design.

Labour’s eagerness to get its hands back on the tiller – clearly, a deliberate strategy from on high – has pushed it into alliances which might work now but did anyone bother to look at the budgets forecast for the next few years?  The cuts they are a-coming.

Between now and 2015, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government is scything Scotland’s funding settlement, leaving us with nearly £1 billion less to spend in revenue and almost £300 million less on capital.  In real terms.

The grant from central to local government for general and non-ring fenced expenditure will be cut by over £400 million over the next two years.  Not because this SNP Government wants to, but because it has to.  The money simply isn’t there, simply isn’t coming from the Westminster Government.

Effectively, Labour has put itself in charge in most parts of Scotland of managing an unprecedented era of cuts to services.  All those promises to maintain and preserve some services and improve still others?  Might as well rip them up now.  And who have you got helping you in this endeavour?  The very parties who got us into this mess in the first place.  Yep, be careful what you coalesce for and with whom.

The SNP might not, at this stage, have wanted to be on the outside but actually, bearing noisy witness to the wreckage about to befall us, might not be a bad place to be.  Just like Labour managed before 2010, the SNP will be able to play the opposition card at this level of government.  And Labour only has itself to blame.

For as they survey the rainbow coalition administrations forged in their areas this weekend, can people feel satisfied that they – including the ones who stayed away – were listened to last Thursday, that how they voted is reflected in the make-up of coalitions?

Can they look ahead, confident that the parties have set aside tribal enmity and all thought of party political advantage to work together, to lead their communities through the terrible times to come?

Or will they shake their heads and silently mutter what’s the point of it all anyway?

Guestpost: Organising for Engagement – An analysis of where #sc12 went wrong in Glasgow

This is a guestpost in two parts and I am indebted to Nick Durie for what is an outstanding critique of the state of democracy and local politics in Glasgow.  Nick is a community organiser for Power In Community.  He previously worked for London Citizens as a community organiser on their community land trust campaign and has been a member of the Scottish Tenants Organisation’s national committee since 2005.  Nick tweets as @PowerCIC.

Part one published today exposes some of the faultlines in Glasgow political culture and considers if apathy is the appropriate word to describe the disengagement and disenfranchisement in Scotland’s greatest city.  Read it and weep.

As the dust settles after the local election results, it is important to consider the ramifications for Scottish society. Yes, the SNP increased its share of council seats, and won the largest number across Scotland, yes the Scottish Greens had a good election, and yes Labour came out fighting, retaining Glasgow and winning Aberdeen and Edinburgh.

But scratch beneath the results and there is a deeper story going on here.

In the battle tipped to be the biggest show of the election, roughly 10% of Glasgow’s registered voters re-elected a Labour council, in a ballot where 68% of voters didn’t. It is high time we examined the cause of this disenchantment, what it says about our society and our economy, and what can be done about it.

I understand some of the issues around apathy, the challenge I would put out is that if people don’t like the system or the challenges presented by all means get involved and reinvigorate democracy.”

Derek Mackay MSP’s recent, timely comments about voter “apathy” bear some investigation.  The first point is that he, the Minister for Local Government, frames non-voting, non-participation as apathy.  Oxford dictionaries give, “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern” as the meaning of apathy; however, in Let Glasgow Flourish, the Glasgow Centre for Population Health found that among those living in areas of multiple indices of deprivation – the kind of areas where voter “apathy” is at its highest – residents were the most likely in Glasgow to take personal action to solve local problems.

The same study found that social capital and levels of reciprocity in the poorest areas were weak, and that residents did not  trust their neighbours or like the environment in which they lived, so this result is all the more surprising in that it shows that the poorest are among the most likely to take action to improve their neighbourhoods.

The idea that poor people, living in poor areas are not interested in civics or politics, that they are “apathetic,” is not borne out by the evidence.  Something deeper is at the root of why the urban poor did not vote in large numbers in Glasgow’s local election.

Newsnicht helpfully interviewed some people in Possil, who were clear on why they did not vote:

They don’t dae nothin.  They don’t dae a hing for anybody.  […] It’s worthless.  There’s nae point in it.  Nae point in it.  Doesnae help nobody.”

>Do you think it would change anything? “No really, naw.”

>What’s the reason for people not exercising their vote d’you think? “Probably don’t think any of thaim will dae any different for ye, or no.  Thing is politicians are only in it for theirsels oniewey, ye know.

It is easy to dismiss such analysis as unhelpfully cynical.  But it must be remembered that during the height of the boom, Scottish society was content to let half the population of Possil, where these non-voters were interviewed, to be written off as “structural unemployment.”

People in places like Possilpark have good reason to be cynical about what the political process will deliver for them.  Indeed those who spend their lives studying data about social inequality are equally scathing, based on these kinds of data:-

The poor places always remain poor places unless something happens to change them. In these seats, the level of apathy is amazing. They vote Labour but more people don’t vote at all. A hell of a lot of people are just disengaged because they don’t see the point of it.” [Professor Douglas Robertson, Stirling University]

For a hundred years, the only party on offer to poor people has been Labour and it hasn’t been that great for them — so, often, they don’t bother to vote at all.” [Prof Danny Dorling, Sheffield University]

Across much of Glasgow, this kind of crushing inequality and poverty is mirrored.  In the home of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Glasgow’s East End, life expectancy among the poor appears actually to be on the decline, again during the years of the boom. “In many neighbourhoods with lower than average life expectancy, life expectancy appears to have remained static or may even have fallen.

Calton ward saw a turnout of 26.03%; it has the worst male life expectancy in Western Europe.  Indeed, six wards in Glasgow had a turnout in the 20% range: they all suffer from deprivation, however, the only ward which elected a Tory councillor had a turnout of 42.7%.

It’s worth taking a look at the picture in Calton ward, a ward that routinely has the lowest turnout in council elections, because it graphically illustrates just how much this was an election dominated by a shrinking pool of core voters:

Labour’s vote for George Redmond had a 72% transfer rate for 455 surplus ballots which were allocated to                   Yvonne Küçük, taking her above her quota.  For the remaining seat, the SNP struggled through 13 rounds of preference transfers before making the quota.

This demonstrates how little movement there was in preferences, indicating an election dominated by core voters.  The same pattern has emerged in other wards around the city, where first preference SNP voters were transferring second preferences at 70+%, and first preference Labour voters were transferring at around the same rate, and other Unionist-voting first preferences were not transferred to the SNP, after Labour candidates had made their quota.

The leader of Glasgow City Council, Gordon Matheson, standing in Anderston and City ward, may have made quota in round one, but he did so in a ward that recorded a 23.6% turnout.  There is something rotten about our democracy when the leader of a council is elected by less than 10% of the electorate in the ward where he stood.

Apathy is not the issue, it is poverty and disenchantment with electoral politics.  It is interesting to speculate about what this says about our society, but I prefer to look at the question of dismal mandates in areas of poverty as just a refraction of lived reality.

Whole communities have been written off by the political process and this is reflected at the ballot box.