In the upcoming but overlooked local elections the issue of women's representation has once again been sidelined. Dr Meryl Kenny and Prof Fiona Mackay argue that this matter is too important to be left to parties and that it is time for legislation.
Since the announcement of an early general election by Theresa May on 18 April, Scottish local government elections have seemingly disappeared from view. Indeed, if one were to read the campaign leaflets piling up over the last few weeks, one would wonder whether there is a local election going on at all, given their scant mention of local issues (as well as sweeping pledges that voting for particular parties and candidates in council elections will singlehandedly stave off indyref2, Brexit, and so on and so forth).
Stepping into the breach, however, was Edinburgh Evening News, who on Monday night organised a live-streamed Council hustings.
Can you spot the common denominator?
Facing criticism for their male and pale line-up, the paper responded with a familiar excuse often heard in Scottish media circles – that parties put forward their own candidates for debate, and the paper was simply working with what was given. Others defended the line-up by arguing that parties needed to elect more female leaders if they wanted women on panels.
(If you listen carefully, you should be able to here the faint sound of ‘Bingo!’ in the distance, as someone fills out their card of excuses for not inviting women speakers).
Blaming parties, of course, absolves the media of responsibility – for example, when the paper became aware that it had organised an all-white-male panel, it could have gone back to the parties and asked them to put forward more diverse representatives. It could also have selected a woman moderator. As for those who sit on #manels, it’s time for male politicians, pundits and academic commentators to hold themselves to account – it is a very easy thing when accepting a speaking invitation to ask who else is on the panel; recommend diverse speakers; and, if the line-up remains men only, refuse to participate.
Beyond the line-up itself, however, there was no acknowledgement by the paper or the participants during the event that they were sitting on a #manel; no discussion of women’s under-representation (or rather, male over-representation) in the upcoming council elections, or the under-representation of other marginalised groups (and what the speakers’ respective parties were going to do about it); and no discussion of women or women’s policy concerns full stop (despite questions being asked on social media).
Five years ago, we wrote about the ‘male, pale, stale’ face of Scottish local government in the run-up to the 2012 council elections. Looking back, it is depressing to see how little has changed in the interim. Women’s representation has flatlined in Scottish councils for decades; whilst we’ve also seen setbacks in women’s representation at other levels of Scottish politics over time, including Holyrood.
In the 2017 local government elections, we see the same familiar patterns – some parties (the SNP, the Greens) taking women’s representation seriously, whilst others like the Scottish Conservatives – who are expected to make significant gains on Thursday – continue to lag well behind on selecting women council candidates.
Why does it matter? We need local councils that look like their communities and that draw upon ‘all talents’. Whilst the link between women’s political presence and the promotion of women-friendly policies is far from straightforward, nonetheless, there is considerable evidence to suggest that women politicians ‘make a difference’, or, more accurately, that more gender-balanced parliaments and councils do.
What is at stake? In times of austerity and welfare state retrenchment, it is crucial that women’s voices and perspectives (in all their diversity) are included in our political institutions. This is especially the case at the local level, where difficult decisions are made and cuts hit hardest – legislation stands or falls at local level where it is implemented on a daily basis.
As the Women5050 campaign has highlighted, it is clear that on Thursday we will fail to achieve fair representation for women in yet another Scottish election. Five years ago, we suggested that women’s representation was too important to leave up to political parties, and that it was time for Scotland to consider implementing legal gender quotas. Warm words are no longer enough – politicians must follow the evidence and show leadership.
2017 will go down as another missed opportunity for equal representation in Scotland – let’s make it the last one.
Dr Kenny will be producing a full analysis of women candidates and councillors immediately following the election for Gender Politics at Edinburgh.