NICOLA Sturgeon faces a fight within her own party this week as she bids to reverse SNP policy on all-women shortlists, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
The First Minister faces opposition from a vocal group of activists at the party’s spring conference in Glasgow.
They will attempt to block the leadership’s proposal to return more female MSPs by creating a number of all-woman shortlists for the selection of candidates for next year’s Scottish parliament election.
With the SNP preparing for the biggest gathering in its history, with 3,000 expected to attend, party officials had hoped the conference would be devoted to rallying the troops before the UK goes to the polls.
However internal opposition to a proposal by the SNP’s national executive committee (NEC) to promote gender equality among SNP candidates threatens party unity six weeks out from a watershed general election.
The NEC, on which Sturgeon sits, has proposed a series of changes to party rules to ensure more women stand for the Scottish Parliament. Currently, SNP male MSPs outnumber women by 47 to 17.
Delegates at the conference will vote on the changes in a private session on Saturday at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow. At the heart of the plan to introduce “gender balance mechanisms” for candidate selection is giving the NEC the power to insist local branches and associations submit an all-women shortlist when an SNP constituency MSP stands down.
If passed by delegates, the change would see the SNP embrace all-women shortlists for the first time in a move that would echo the all-women shortlists introduced to Labour under Tony Blair in the mid-1990s. Until now the SNP leadership has proved reluctant to get behind the idea.
Even though Sturgeon has made gender equality one of her key policies since she took over from Alex Salmond, a bid to undermine the NEC’s plan has been mounted by a group of SNP members. The Avondale branch of the Clydesdale Constituency Association has put forward an amendment to scupper the plan.
The Avondale amendment, which has been accepted and will be debated, asks delegates to “delete” the all-women shortlist proposal “in its entirety”.
Last night, the Avondale secretary Patrick McGuire said he believed the amendment, which was agreed at a recent branch meeting, would attract support and explained why it had been decided to fight against the all-women shortlist.
“Most people at the meeting felt that if there is a selection process for anything then it should be the best person regardless of gender,” he said. “Really if that creates an imbalance, it is a fair imbalance because it is the best people for the job.”
McGuire was critical of attempts to promote the interests of women through affirmative action.
“It doesn’t matter whether it is in the workplace or in political circles, everything’s got to include females as part of a selection process,” McGuire said.
“But to be fair, for years and years – and for whatever reason – they have not put themselves forward for these positions.”
When asked how much support his branch’s amendment would get, McGuire added: “I think there are quite a lot of – I’m maybe saying the wrong thing here – maybe a lot of support from the older members. It will be interesting to see how it goes.”
The NEC is also proposing that in any constituency where more than one candidate is nominated at least one “must” be female. If passed, the NEC would have the authority to add candidates to shortlists to achieve this.
The Avondale branch has lodged a second amendment recommending that the word “must” is replaced by “should preferably”.
A third NEC proposal deals with Holyrood candidates standing on the Holyrood list system. It recommends that the NEC could “take steps” to balance the number of male and female candidates submitted for the list. The NEC would have the authority to nominate additional candidates to achieve this.
Avondale has refrained from challenging the move to get more women on the regional lists. The only amendment on the list proposal has been lodged by the SNP trade union group, which is approaching the issue from the opposite standpoint.
The trade union amendment is constructed to ensure greater female representation on the lists. The trade union group’s recommendation is that when the top place on the list is occupied by a man, the second place should go to a woman. If a woman is at the top of the list, then the second place should be open to either gender and so on.
Gender equality is a key issue for Sturgeon. Having appointed a Cabinet with a 50:50 gender mix, the First Minister has pressed for greater female representation in board rooms.
Within the party, there is uncertainty how the vote will go on Saturday. With membership soaring at around 94,000 mark as a result of the remarkable surge of SNP support after the referendum, there will be many delegates voting at conference for the first time.
One SNP source said: “To be honest, no-one knows how it is going to go because this is going to be the first conference that the new members who joined after September 18 will vote at. In that sense it is a brand new party and it will be interesting. But I think the balance of between male and female members is closer than it was before the referendum. I think around 44 per cent of the membership is female.”