How Scottish Labour are fighting discrimination against women – Richard Leonard

Women and working people have borne the economic brunt of Covid, but it is they who will rebuild post-pandemic Scotland, says Richard Leonard
Female Scottish MSPs, pictured in 2018, mark the 100th anniversary of women over 30 getting the vote (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Female Scottish MSPs, pictured in 2018, mark the 100th anniversary of women over 30 getting the vote (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Female Scottish MSPs, pictured in 2018, mark the 100th anniversary of women over 30 getting the vote (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Shortly after next year’s Holyrood elections, women’s organisations around the globe will mark the 40th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In Article 7, this landmark convention sets out to “ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right to... participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government”.

Though significant strides have been made down the road to gender equality since the Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, Scotland’s political structures still have a long way to go. At the last Holyrood election in 2016, only 35 per cent of successful candidates were women – exactly the same as in 2011, and still down from the 2003 high of 40 per cent. Of Scottish Labour’s MSPs, 46 per cent were women – close to our long established goal of 50/50, but still failing to meet the target we set out to deliver.

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So in the run-up to next May’s election, Scottish Labour will be taking action to redress this. It is all the more important because of the impact that the three linked crises Scotland now faces – and which the SNP government left us unprepared for – have disproportionately affected women.

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Scottish Women’s Aid has raised concerns that the Covid-19 public health lockdowns have been used by abusive partners as a tool in their abuse. The shutdown of schools, and the continued uncertainty even now as to how long they will remain open, has left many women bearing the brunt of childcare. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to women who tell me they feel like they’re back in the 1950s. And the spiralling economic crisis has exacerbated the pre-existing discrimination against women in the workplace. Scottish Labour’s analysis recently established that unemployment among women has risen by half in the past year. This is a trend which pre-dates the pandemic, but it has been visibly accelerated by it.

Women are disproportionately represented in sectors like retail and hospitality – sectors in which many more workers are likely to be laid off when the furlough scheme ends next month. But there are many women who worked in those sectors on precarious forms of employment so qualified neither for furlough or for self-employment support.

We know as well that women are disproportionately represented in historically under-valued key worker grades – such as social care, local government, the NHS and childcare.

Prior to the pandemic, I had set out my intention for Scottish Labour to accelerate our drive towards equal representation through putting a woman at the top of every regional list in next year’s election – with provision to ensure that black and ethnic minority, disabled and LGBT candidates are also represented in the top slots. This built on my commitment when I stood for the Scottish Labour leadership to make equal representation not just an aspiration, but a reality. The experience of the past six months makes it all the more important that Scottish Labour meets these objectives.

I have repeatedly said in the past six months that one of the biggest lessons we must learn from Covid-19 is that we must never again allow our key workers to be underpaid, undervalued and labelled “unskilled”. In the next Parliament, I know there will be a push back from Scotland’s political establishment – and many politicians will be perfectly content to leave carers on poverty pay.

One of the casualties of the pandemic has been the postponement of the roll-out of the entitlement to 1,140 hours of funded childcare for families across Scotland. This is vital national infrastructure, and if fully resourced it can provide properly valued, and so properly remunerated, secure jobs. It can also provide the means to help young mothers especially into employment. Although I was recently reminded that would be boosted if we can break away from what organisations like Close the Gap describe as “the culture of inflexibility” which forces women into part-time roles in often the lowest-paid jobs. If we are to build back better this needs to change.

I know too that in spite of the SNP’s decision last week to concede to Scottish Labour’s longstanding demand for a National Care Service, there will be attempts by vested interests to water this down. So make no mistake – we will need fighters and believers in Parliament to ensure that we build a National Care Service worthy of the name. We need MSPs who will look outwards to building a new movement and a new society – not inwards towards internal bickering.

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We are living in challenging times, but as I argued in Parliament last week, there is cause too for hope. It comes from those key workers – predominantly women – who have kept Scotland going. It comes from the trade unionists who have fought for adequate sick pay, the tenants’ unions which have campaigned against evictions. It comes from the school students, whose refusal to be downgraded on the basis of their postcode created the conditions in which we could force a U-turn with a no-confidence motion in John Swinney.

It is Scotland’s women and Scotland’s working people who have borne the economic brunt of the current predicament. But it is Scotland’s women and Scotland’s working people too who will build the new Scotland after the pandemic.

That is why we need more of those voices in our politics, in our Parliaments, and in our council chambers, so that our representatives look and sound like the people they are elected to represent. And when we get to the 40th anniversary of the institution of that declaration on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women next September, let’s make sure we are living up to the standards it sets.

Richard Leonard is leader of the Scottish Labour party

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