Lesley Riddoch: Balancing act does everyone good

Nicola Sturgeon faces opposition to her plans for women-only shortlists. Picture: Neil Hanna

Nicola Sturgeon faces opposition to her plans for women-only shortlists. Picture: Neil Hanna

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SNP debate on all-women shortlists could be the key to winning or losing, as Sturgeon knows, writes Lesley Riddoch

So Nicola Sturgeon may face opposition – and even defeat – over plans for all-women shortlists at next weekend’s SNP spring conference. Actually, some dissent is good news. Onlookers need to see that the SNP is a feisty, fully functioning political party, not a compliant sect, and members need an honest debate not just a surly toeing of some new “feminist” line.

Clearly some are uncomfortable with gender balance as a top political priority.

After all, the SNP has become the UK’s third-largest political party just as it is and women-only shortlists have not been plain sailing for Labour over the past 22years.

For supporters – that’s evidence they have really tackled power imbalances. For dissenters – it’s proof that gender is an unnecessary distraction from “real politics”.

Such folk tend to come from an era where a few exceptional, strong women could get to the top “unaided” – and that was enough.

But the new post-referendum intake of SNP members doesn’t want notable exceptions to the rule – it wants wholesale change to society.

And since many belong to groups with more outspoken views, new SNP members know others are even more impatient for change.

Sturgeon is wise to realise she must match the pace of change of these new SNP activists – not the members of yesteryear. If she doesn’t modernise her party, a “stick-in-the-mud” SNP could prompt disillusioned allies to consider becoming competitors at the next Holyrood elections.

It’s not so far-fetched. At their recent conference in Perth, Women for Independence voted to examine the idea of setting up a Women’s Party in September.

That’s neither an empty threat nor an ego-backed desire for ministerial Mondeos. It’s a determination to make sure the present wave of optimism and energy isn’t dissipated by warm words and half-hearted change.

One of the most powerful speeches at the Women for Indy event last weekend came from the mother of a 20-year-old man with a rare disability. She described her day in, day out, two-decade long commitment to his care and her anger over recent news that the carers allowance is to be raised by 75p a week to a paltry £62.10, while the UK government enacts £1 billion worth of cuts to carers across the UK by 2018.

She raised issues Scotland’s 657,000 carers would love to hear asked at a despatch box in Westminster or Holyrood. If carers didn’t do their work, could the state afford to pay for it? And since it couldn’t, how about some thanks, resources and real financial help? The Women for Indy delegate finished: “Isn’t the prospect of this kind of change why most of us got involved in the Yes campaign? Isn’t this what we want the powers from Westminster for?” The entire conference of 400 women was on its feet applauding – and yet this woman had never before spoken in public.

The SNP needs to keep such clear-sighted, selfless energy on board – or risk losing it.

There’s another reason the SNP would be wise to give women a bigger-share of action inside the party. Overcoming the independence gender gap would have reversed the referendum result. And whilst empowering women as SNP candidates won’t automatically swing women voters in the next referendum, it begins a process hard-to-reach voters rate highly – doing what you say you’ll do.

Academics observed that the more engaged voters became during the referendum campaign, the more they moved towards a yes vote. The converse is also true. Disengaged party members may soon lapse. And lapsed members are hard to woo again. Ask the male-dominated trade union movement where boring, procedural meetings dominated by a few confident men finally deterred all but the hard core.

Now this isn’t to say those party quota opponents are dinosaurs. Far from it. Mandatory women only shortlists will be opposed this weekend by the Avondale branch of the SNP. I spoke at a meeting of that branch last week in Strathaven and they were a frisky bunch.

But during the question session I interrupted the chair, as I do at most meetings, to suggest the next two questions come from women in the audience or I’ll go home. There was a moment’s awkwardness as the power balance in the room changed, but then – as usual – some of the best, most searching and honest questions of the night were asked. At another SNP event, delegates were being chosen for a conference while I waited to speak. There were no immediate volunteers, so the chair asked folk who had previously attended if they wanted to go again – all were men. Later I suggested women who wanted to go should step forward. About half a dozen did. Non-intervention produces business as usual, whilst a confident assertion that it’s the women’s turn invariably changes that dynamic.

Now I realise men get very frustrated at the need to encourage women who don’t volunteer. Avondale has a very impressive female candidate for the general election – NHS consultant Dr Lisa Cameron – who beat all-comers. Perhaps that’s why Avondale are so dubious about quotas.

But “natural selection” ignores the dead hand of entitlement.

Even the most outspoken, intelligent and committed women tend to wait for men to exhaust their own curiosity before they take the floor. And in a world of limited time and some considerable egos, that moment never comes.

It’s time for folk who run SNP branches and candidate selection meetings to question a basic assumption – that an absence of hands in the air means no-one is keen to speak. Invariably it means only that a pecking order has been sensed by those with least entitlement and they are patiently waiting their turn. This is an almost subconscious process – but no less powerful for that – and it can be changed. Back in the 70s, women’s groups and the peace movement selected chairs for meetings who would facilitate events and put great effort into stimulating a wide discussion. A meeting where everyone did not speak would be considered a failure. A board filled with men would be an embarrassment.

Are we ready to embrace that approach again? Call me a hippy, but it seems the times are a changin’. This weekend the SNP can get ahead of that curve – or remain behind it.

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