A CROSS-PARTY group of MSPs has called for legal quotas to ensure 50/50 representation of women at Holyrood and across Scottish public life.
The politicians from Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens have told Scotland on Sunday that laws must be passed to encourage more women into politics.
With Lord Smith of Kelvin’s newly established commission examining the transfer of more powers to the Scottish Parliament, the group of six MSPs believes control over equality legislation should be moved from Westminster to Edinburgh.
This would allow MSPs to introduce legal quotas to achieve a 50/50 ratio of females to males at Holyrood, in local government and in the Scottish Government’s public bodies.
The proposal is outlined in Scotland on Sunday today in an article by Labour’s Kezia Dugdale and Alison Johnstone of the Greens. They have the support of Marco Biagi, the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central; Jean Urquhart, the pro-Yes independent MSP; Alison McInnes of the Lib Dems; and Jackie Baillie, Labour’s equalities spokesperson.
The intervention of a six-strong cross-party alliance with representatives from both sides of the constitutional divide comes at a time when Scotland is on the verge of seeing its first female First Minister.
With Nicola Sturgeon in line to take over from Alex Salmond, the SNP will join Labour and the Conservatives as major Scottish political parties with women at their helm.
Although Sturgeon looks likely to join Johann Lamont of Labour and Ruth Davidson of the Conservatives as a Scottish party leader, there remains concern that women are under-represented in many areas of Scottish life.
In their letter, Dugdale and Johnstone report that only 35 per cent of Scotland’s 129 MSPs are women – down from a high of nearly 40 per cent in 1999.
The situation in Scotland’s 32 local authorities is worse, with less than a quarter of wards represented by women.
Currently there are just 297 female councillors, compared with 1,232 men. Of the 59 Scottish MPs at Westminster, only 13 (22 per cent) are women.
“Evidence from across the world shows that if gender inequality persists in decision making, it is to the detriment of policy-making and the wellbeing of society,” Dugdale and Johnstone write.
“The people who govern us, in our parliament and our council chambers, should reflect the society they represent, not a closed shop.
“That is why women from across the political divide have decided to come together to campaign for legal quotas in the Scottish Parliament, our council chambers and our public bodies.”
Dugdale, a rising star at Holyrood tipped as a future Scottish Labour leader, and Johnstone say Scotland should follow in the footsteps of France and Belgium and introduce a 50/50 balance.
They believe “robust sanctions” should be imposed against parties that fail to comply.
“As politicians discuss extensive new powers for the Scottish Parliament we would like to see the power to legislate for gender quotas devolved. We want every political party in Scotland to support gender quotas in their manifestos for the 2016 Holyrood elections,” Dugdale and Johnstone write.
Labour already has mechanisms in place to try to encourage women to stand for parliament.
A system of twinning is used when selecting people to stand for Holyrood’s 73 constituency seats. Labour chooses two Holyrood first-past-the-post seats which the party has approximately equal chance of winning. The twinned seats tend to be close together in geographical as well as political terms.
The two constituency Labour parties then form one selection panel and elect one woman and one man to stand for each seat.
When selecting those who are to stand in the 56 list seats, Labour ballots its members in the regional list. In order to ensure there is a healthy balance of candidates, some places at the top of the lists are reserved for women and members of ethnic minorities.
All-women shortlists are sometimes used when selecting candidates for Westminster elections and Holyrood by-elections.
The use of all-women shortlists is decided by the National Executive Committee in the case of Westminster seats and by the Scottish Executive Committee in the case of Holyrood by-elections.
There are not yet similar mechanisms for promoting the interests of women in local government elections.
Labour, however, is reviewing its candidate selection for local government elections for the 2017 poll.
Two years ago the SNP created a post of national women’s officer to try to encourage greater female participation and support women in standing for election. The post is currently held by Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. She has responsibility for overseeing a party Women’s Academy which will include training and mentoring schemes.
She also encourages branches to appoint a women’s officer with responsibility for recruiting and supporting more female members.
The Lib Dems have a “Leadership Programme”, set up to support potential parliamentary candidates from under-represented groups who want to stand for the party.
The Conservatives are against the concept of positive discrimination for women and point out that both of their most recent Scottish leaders have been women: Annabel Goldie and Ruth Davidson.
Last night the Tory MSP Murdo Fraser said: “The Scottish Conservatives, with two senior leaders in succession, have a very strong track record of promoting women into leading positions.
“Amongst our own female members there is a view that positive discrimination is not just unnecessary but also insulting to those who have made it to the top under their own efforts.”