If we truly are progressive nation, and a progressive party, we must get to grips with gender equality argues SUSAN DALGETY

As a young Labour activist I airily dismissed party quotas for women as a distraction from the real battle against poverty. “If a woman is good enough she’ll get selected,” I opined with all the arrogance and lack of insight of a thirtysomething in a hurry.

How wrong I was.

It was a courageous African female politician who made me see sense. The Honourable Soline Nyirahabimana helped write Rwanda’s 2003 constitution – the legal framework for a country recovering from the horror of genocide.

In it women are guaranteed: “at least thirty percent of posts in decision making bodies.”

“Why?” I asked Soline, when I interviewed her in Kigali a couple of years ago.

She looked at me and smiled. “Equality is not a favour, it is a right,” she said.

Quotas work – Rwanda is now the only country in the world where women are in the majority in its parliament.

A few weeks after that conversation I picked up a Sunday newspaper and saw a recent photograph of Gordon Brown’s cabinet.

Two women were conspicuous amid the cabal of glowering men.

Two women in a Labour Cabinet in 2009 – more than a century after our party had been established to fight for equality.

I was ashamed.

Here in Scotland things did get a bit better…for a while.

The groundbreaking 50-50 rule of 1999 saw the Labour Party return 28 women MSPs and 28 men, helping boost the Parliament’s female representation to nearly 40 percent. But the 2011 results have continued the downward trend of 2007. Only 34.1% of the newly-elected MSPs are women.

Scotland is going backwards, hardly the sign of a progressive nation.

But Scottish Labour is a progressive party and our track record in gender equality is still the best in the parliament. Seventeen of our current group of 37 MSPs are women – almost matching our 1999 achievement.

The SNP on the other hand have only 18 women MSPs out of a group of 68. Maths has never been my strong point, but I reckon that means barely more than a quarter of Nationalist MSPs are women.

But if the SNP is silent on equality, there is no need for us to be.

Last January the cross-party committee set up by the House of Commons to make recommendations on equality of representation argued that if political parties failed to make significant progress on women’s representation at the 2010 general election, Westminster should give serious consideration to the introduction of prescriptive quotas, to ensure that “all political parties adopt some form of equality guarantee in time for the following general election”.

Now I doubt if David Cameron, or his sidekick Nick Clegg will pay much heed, but Scottish Labour has a track record of leading the way in public policy, from council housing to the smoking ban.

We should now argue for an inquiry into how gender equality can be achieved in the Scottish Parliament in time for 2015; and while we are at, in our council chambers too.

The Parliament’s Equalities Committee, led by Labour’s redoubtable Claudia Beamish, could lead that inquiry. By all means, let us have a national conversation, but let’s make it about equality, not national identity.

Susan Dalgety is a writer and communications adviser specialising in international development and women in politics. She joined the Labour Party in 1980 and still believes in the power of people to change the world.