Democracy in Scotland: Women are being put off politics by replacement of reasoned debate with tribalism, insults and misogynist abuse – Susan Dalgety

Childbirth is painful. Very painful. Anyone who says otherwise either had access to the finest narcotics or is a man.

Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone has launched a review of the participation of women in the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone has launched a review of the participation of women in the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

Yet nearly half of women surveyed by Mumsnet, the UK’s most popular website for parents, say they would rather “give birth again without drugs” than stand for election.

In a poll published earlier this week, an astonishing 93 per cent of the women who responded said they would never get involved in politics, at any level – even though, in the same survey, 88 per cent said they were interested in politics and the impact it had on their daily lives.

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So why the disconnect? Why do women shy away from standing for election, even at the most accessible level, their local council? Nominations for the 2022 council elections do not close until 30 March, but I am willing to bet that the majority of candidates will be male, pale and stale, just like every other council election since time immemorial.

Currently, less than one third of Scotland’s councillors are women (29 per cent), despite us being the majority of the population.

So what is it about the current state of politics that puts off most women? The obvious answer is the motherhood gap. As I found out as a young councillor back in the 1990s, combining single parenthood with my council duties, as well as the need to earn a living (councillors did not receive a salary until 2007), was an impossible juggling act.

For seven years, I often put meetings ahead of my children, something I still agonise over, and it was with only the most fleeting of regrets that I decided to stand down in 1999.

If council duties conflict with motherhood, how much more difficult it must be to combine being a government minister in Holyrood or a backbench MP at Westminster with bringing up a baby. I will watch with interest how the Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes, who recently announced she was pregnant, juggles being a new mother with running Scotland’s public finances.

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Yet even writing that sentence makes me baulk. It has never crossed my mind to ponder how Humza Yousaf, the Health Secretary, handles his responsibilities as a father while running the NHS during a pandemic.

But the fact of most people’s domestic lives is that women still shoulder the majority of child-rearing duties, making a full-on political career, while not impossible, very hard work.

Just ask Ruth Davidson, arguably the best Scottish politician of her generation. She stood down from her role as leader of the Scottish Conservatives in August 2019, citing family reasons for her shock decision.

“The party and my work has always come first, often at the expense of commitments to loved ones,” she wrote in her resignation letter, adding, “The arrival of my son means I now make a different choice.”

Yet in the years since she wrote that heartfelt missive, Davidson has thrown herself wholeheartedly into another busy lifestyle, combining a seat in the House of Lords with a resurgence in her journalism career while being mum to a toddler.

I suspect that Ruth Davidson’s resignation from the frontline had as much, if not more, to do with the current state of our politics as it had to do with her parenting responsibilities.

Mumsnet chief executive, Justine Roberts, acknowledges that politics’ “archaic way of working” makes family life almost impossible, but stresses it is the “toxic combination” of macho culture and misogynist abuse that puts most women off.

It is not just women who have had enough. London Mayor Sadiq Khan told LBC this week that Labour’s leader Keir Starmer and frontbencher David Lammy have both had conversations with their families about whether it is worth “carrying on” because of the abuse they receive.

Politics has always been a tough profession, and it’s definitely not for everyone, but something fundamental has changed in recent years. When I stood for election in 1992, I was a working-class single parent living in a council estate. No-one thought my CV was unusual. In fact, it was viewed as an asset.

Today, the typical political wannabee is a middle-class, self-absorbed, political science graduate who dreams of becoming an MP while earning a living as an MSP’s researcher. They get their understanding of the world from Twitter, Tik Tok and their narrow network of fellow geeks.

But much worse than the shrinking talent pool is the state of our public discourse. It is rotten, from the Prime Minister down. Former First Minister Jack McConnell made that very point earlier this week when he said that politics “is horrific and it has been horrific for a while”.

He blamed the aftermath of the referenda of 2014 and 2016 for the toxic atmosphere, saying, “…politicians afterwards, rather than heal the wounds and bring people together, keep the divisions going to feed their own base and keep their own support”.

A cursory glance at his Twitter feed soon after his remarks were broadcast appeared to prove his point, with former Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick going as far to say that he had no right to “intervene in the democratic process”.

There will always be robust debate among politicians and their supporters. But reasoned argument, based on research and evidence and rooted in your party’s values, has been replaced by tribalism, assertion and insults.

Politics is now a bear pit, where calling someone you disagree with an ugly bigot on social media is considered a legitimate tactic. Is it any wonder that women would prefer to focus on their family and work life, rather than get involved with this poisonous profession?

Yesterday, Holyrood’s Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone launched an audit to review the participation of women in the Scottish Parliament. Let’s hope it’s a robust examination of the true state of our politics and how it affects ordinary women, and not just a meaningless exercise by a political elite.

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