Comment: Walker by-election can be watershed

AFTER the Bill Walker abuse case, the SNP and Scottish Labour must use Dunfermline to make a positive statement, write Susan Dalgety and Kate Higgins

The Independent member for Dunfermline attacked three former wives and a step-daughter. Picture: Neil Hanna

Sometimes, a symbolic gesture is required to make a serious point. Earlier this year, while still the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard made a long-awaited national apology to the estimated 150,000 Australian mothers who had their babies forcibly adopted from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Ms Gillard’s powerful words could not reunite grieving mothers with their children, but her acknowledgement of their loss and grief did go some way to mending their broken hearts.

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And by acknowledging the state’s actions against these women, the prime minister went some way to changing Australian society.

This month, Scotland’s two political main political parties – the SNP and Scottish Labour – have the chance to send a powerful message about the scourge of domestic abuse, while at the same time making a strong statement about the place of women in our society.

Scottish Labour and the SNP are about to go head to head in the Dunfermline by-election, a Holyrood seat left vacant after the somewhat reluctant resignation of convicted wife-beater Bill Walker at the weekend.

There have been sufficient words written and spoken about the heinous Walker, suffice to say that domestic abuse is not just about violence. And Walker is not alone in his controlling, violent behaviour.

As Scottish Women’s Aid sets out on its website, domestic abuse is “persistent and controlling behaviour by a partner or ex-partner which causes physical, sexual and/or emotional harm. It often gets worse over time. It is very common”.

The Scottish Government’s own figures on domestic abuse are a clear manifestation of the unequal power relations between men and women that continue to scar our society.

There were 59,847 incidents of domestic abuse recorded by the police in Scotland in 2011-12, compared to the 55,698 incidents recorded in 2010-11 – a 7 per cent increase.

More than 60 per cent of incidents were recorded against people who had previously been abused domestically and eight out of ten cases involved a female victim and a male perpetrator.

The incidence of domestic abuse continues to rise, despite commitment and resources from both parties in government to address it.

Every year, we have high-profile awareness campaigns; Scottish Labour introduced Scotland’s first domestic abuse strategy, while the SNP implemented a framework to address violence in the home on children. Both parties, when in power, have funded work to prevent abuse and to address its impact on its victims.

But improvement is incremental. And, worryingly, a 2005 study involving 1,395 young people aged between 14 and 18 found that a third of young men and a sixth of young women thought that using violence in an intimate relationship was acceptable under certain circumstances. Thus the subordination of women continues into the next generation.

That is why we, as long-time activists of our respective parties, urge both the SNP and Scottish Labour to put forward women candidates in the forthcoming by-election in Dunfermline.

We do not want them to do this as a meaningless gesture – as some of our friends and colleagues argued on Twitter on Saturday night in an online discussion that erupted after news of Walker’s resignation broke.

And they should most definitely not supplant the “best available candidate” with a woman: both parties are chock-full of bright, articulate, passionate women activists and members, who would do our Scottish Parliament proud.

It should be done as a signal that our main political parties are determined to secure gender justice and forge a political system at Holyrood that resembles real life, not the back room of a rugby club. A parliament that is built on equality. A parliament whose members have a wide range of life experience, whether as single parents, youth workers or retired engineers. A parliament that looks like Scotland – where the majority of the population is female.

There were great strides made in the historic first Scottish Parliament when, in 1999, thanks in no small part to the Labour Party’s positive action to twin constituency seats and the SNP’s voluntary zipping on the regional lists, nearly 40 per cent of the first intake of MSPs were women.

Since then, everyone has taken their eye off the ball and the balance has now dipped in favour of men in every election since: the ratio of women members now stands at only 34.8 per cent. Scotland’s council chambers are worse, with less than a quarter of councillors being women, a statistic that shames local democracy.

The Holyrood figures are particularly significant because they show that, as a nation, we are going backwards at a time in our history when we should be pioneering gender equality.

Defenders of the status quo point to Johann Lamont and Nicola Sturgeon as poster girls for women in politics. They are, but neither should rest until they are the rule, and not the exception. Scottish Labour has listened to the arguments put forward for gender equality, and has reinstated the twinning process that was so successful in the 1999 elections, for a score of seats in the 2016 Holyrood poll. There will be some all-women shortlists.

The SNP is focused, more than ever before, on what it can do to encourage more women to become candidates – it is holding its first ever women’s conference on Saturday.

All this background activity is welcome. But it needs to be matched by big, public, bold messages about how we, as a society, value and welcome the role of women in politics and how society will always stand up to those who seek to subject women to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Both the SNP and Scottish Labour could send such a message, marking another important step in the long, slow journey towards equality, by putting forward women candidates in the Dunfermline by-election. A symbol? Yes, but also an action of practical effect and consequence.

In 1999, we both campaigned under the banner “a woman’s place is in the Scottish Parliament”. This by-election offers the ideal opportunity for the SNP and Scottish Labour to remind us, and themselves, of this powerful pledge – and to show that they really mean it.

• Susan Dalgety joined the Labour Party in 1980 and works for the Active Learning Centre, a democracy/gender NGO. Kate Higgins is a pro-independence supporter and blogs at A Burdz Eye View