KATE FINLAY warns that Scottish Labour must take urgent action to stop women being left behind in the race for Holyrood


As the party observes the debris of the Scottish elections, how do we move forward with declining women’s representation?

Seven weeks ago Labour suffered its worst result in Scotland since 1931. Out-manoeuvred and out-thought, we failed to match the slick SNP machine which exploited our weaknesses so effectively. However, one of the less observed results of this election is that for the first time since devolution, women in the Scottish Parliament’s Labour Group (SPLP) went into the minority. What is more troubling is that without robust and urgent measures put in place, female representation in the Scottish Parliament may go into terminal decline.

At the start of the Scottish Parliament in May 1999, Scottish Labour was a beacon of equality – an example to the other parties. At that election Labour took a unique opportunity to select candidates to ensure there was an even gender balance in the new SPLP.

However, since that high point women have struggled to make their voices heard in the Scottish Labour Party. Perhaps there was a feeling that, after the struggles of the nineties to ensure women were in the Scottish Parliament, the battle was won and there were much bigger battles to be fought in government.

Because of this level of apathy Scottish Labour has failed to nurture its female activist base. Over the last six years, I have listened to several female Labour MSPs tell me and my contemporaries that we are the future of the Scottish Labour Party, that we are the people who will inherit their legacy. But without proper support mechanisms in place, how can women make progress in an increasingly male-dominated Scottish political scene? Many female MSPs stood down in 2011, either through choice or by losing seats at the election. My fear is that in 2016, like in 2007 and 2011, they will all be replaced by male candidates.

Let’s look at the facts and figures, courtesy of Engender: in the last Scottish election Labour stood 20 female candidates in 73 constituencies, a share of 29 per cent. In the constituencies we are level with the SNP while the Liberal Democrats, a party opposed to positive action, were at 30 per cent. When we look at our list candidates, Labour fairs much better at a rate of 45 per cent, compared to the SNP’s meagre 26 per cent.

Coincidentally, the list statistics mirror the overall number of women representing these parties in the Scottish Parliament. Ironically, the less successful Labour was on May 6, the more proportional the Labour group became. The major difference was that while positive action was used for the list, we failed to implement any positive action measures for constituencies.

In seat after winnable seat, where there was no sitting candidate, Constituency Labour Parties selected men to represent them. Perhaps the questions we have to ask are: why are women not selected for constituencies? And why do so many of our candidates come from the same mould of councillors and local apparatchiks, men who have risen to become the “favoured son” in their areas?

There are brilliant and hard working women in the party, but they are routinely overlooked at Holyrood level. If we ignore this problem the terminal decline in the number of women at Holyrood will become inevitable.

If we want to reverse this trend, there are steps that the party and the SPLP can take to ensure a strong female voice at Holyrood:

  • Candidate training for women;
  • A functioning women’s network, accessible to all women;
  • Labour MSPs mentoring women to become the new face of Scottish Labour.

Where we organise, we win through. There is so much our party must do in light of the election result, but this issue cannot be kicked into the long grass. If we do we will pay the price at the next election.

The Scottish Labour Party must move forward from 2011, but please, don’t leave women behind.

Kate Finlay is a Labour Party activist and a former Secretary of the Edinburgh City Labour Party. A graduate of Edinburgh and Strathclyde Universities, she is now returning to university to become a teacher. She tweets as @kate_finlay.