Friday, 14 June 2013

Women in politics

Last week saw the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Davison.

Ms Davison died on June 8 1913, four days after colliding with a horse on the track at Epsom during the Derby. At the time, and until relatively recently, it was generally accepted that the young woman (she was only 40 at the time) had committed suicide by throwing herself in front of the King’s horse, Anmer, in order to publicise the cause of women’s suffrage (votes for women). However, modern analysis of the newsreel that captured the terrible event show Emily Davison holding something in her hand and reaching up towards the horse prior to the collision. It is now believed she had, in fact, been attempting to attach to the horse’s bridle a scarf proclaiming ‘votes for women’, and had not intended to harm either herself or the horse.

Emily Davison had been a prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which campaigned for women to be allowed to vote and be elected to the House of Commons. It is hard to believe, from this distance in time, that women had to fight for the right to vote – sometimes literally fight. Emily was jailed on no fewer than nine occasions and, while in prison, went on hunger strike. Records show she was force-fed 49 times, which was an extremely unpleasant experience.

On the night of the national Census in 1911, Emily Davison hid in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster, which meant that when her place of residence was recorded on the Census form she legitimately wrote ‘House of Commons’.

It was not until the passing of the Representation of the People Act (1918), five years after Emily’s death, that women were finally allowed to vote and be candidates in parliamentary elections, although this ‘right’ was restricted to women over the age of 30 and who met ‘minimum property qualifications’.

Ten years later, the Representation of the People Act (1928) extended the right to vote to all adults, including women, over the age of 21. It was not until 1969 that the voting age was reduced to 18 and, of course, the Independence Referendum in September 2014 will be the first time anyone aged 16 and over will be entitled to vote.

We may look back across the past Century and find it hard to believe that women – 50% of the population – were denied the basic right to vote in parliamentary elections, far less to actually become Members of Parliament. However, we should not be too quick to pass judgement. Today, in the much more enlightened and gender-balanced 21st Century, women are still hugely under-represented in the political world.

At public meetings over many years I’ve tried to get the message across that every one of us should take an interest in politics. Why? Because decisions taken by politicians affect every one of us, every day of our lives. From streets being swept, bins emptied, education provision, the health service, welfare, pensions, taxes through to whether or not our young men and women are sent to kill or be killed in foreign wars: virtually every aspect of our lives is affected by the decisions of politicians in local councils, the Scottish Parliament, UK Parliament and European Parliament. Yet the under-representation of women in elected politics means the female view can often be denied due regard, if not entirely overlooked.

In the current Scottish Parliament there are 46 female MSPs, which represents almost 37% of the total. Bear in mind women form 50% of the population. The highest number of women MSPs was achieved in the second session of the Scottish Parliament (2003-2007) when 50 were elected (39%), so we are actually heading in the wrong direction in terms of gender equality.

At Westminster, things are even worse. Of the 650 MPs elected at the UK General Election in 2010, only 146 are women (just over 22%), and this represents the best-ever level of female representation since 1918.

Closer to home, North Ayrshire Council has just 8 female councillors (27%) compared to 22 men (73%). The SNP group of 12 has 5 women (42%), while the Labour group of 11 councillors has just one female.

There are clear reasons why fewer women than men enter politics, not the least of which is the burden of child-raising still falling disproportionately onto the shoulders of females. However, even when women do get involved, the facts show gender discrimination still prevents them from progressing to hold elected office, in many cases.

Of course, not all political parties are the same, as the breakdown of female representation on North Ayrshire Council shows. The SNP was just one female candidate short of achieving gender balance in the 12 people it saw elected in May 2012. The Labour Party, though, with just one woman out of 11 councillors, should be ashamed.

During my time as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Socialist Party had four women elected as part of a six-strong parliamentary group. Each of the SSP’s female MSPs were there on merit, were strong articulate campaigners and made an impact on Scottish politics.

In my time in the Scottish National Party I worked closely with many women who were more than the equal of any man. Kay Ullrich was the party’s first Chief Whip (also the first of any party in the Scottish Parliament) and was responsible for enforcing discipline within a parliamentary group of 35 MSPs, the majority of whom were men. Then there was Nicola Sturgeon, now Scotland’s Deputy First Minister and without doubt one of the parliament’s most able and competent politicians.

I was also fortunate to become friends with Margo MacDonald, one of the best-known and respected MSPs. No-one in their right mind would ever underestimate Margo.

The fact women are under-represented at every elected level is to the detriment of not just the female half of the population, but every one of us. As we move, hopefully, towards re-establishing Scotland as a normal, independent nation, we should also strive to ensure women play a full and equal part in building our better, fairer country.

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