Women for Indy was more than delighted to see the recent election of a new Parliament with a record 45% women, including two women of colour - Kaukab Stewart (SNP) and Pam Gosal (Con) - and Pam Duncan-Glancy (Lab), the first permanent wheelchair user elected to the Scottish Parliament. These milestones never happen by accident and it’s worth recalling Margaret Mead’s famous quote:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens [read, women] can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Or, as we like to say, everything worth doing started around a woman’s kitchen table. Mindful that we know exactly who some of those thoughtful committed women are, we asked Talat Yaqoob of Women 50:50 campaign to share her thoughts on the election and how we got here. Here’s her blog, with our thanks.
Seeing the new 2021 intake sworn into Parliament, despite the Covid-19 distancing measures, was a wonderful display of our democracy. But what made this moment different from those before it was the significant increase in diverse representation at Holyrood; the first two women of colour in the history of devolution, the first Muslim woman MSP, the first Sikh MSP and the first permanent wheelchair user. 22 years after the Scottish Parliament was created, we are seeing Scotland better reflected in the debate chamber. However, we must not forget how far there is still to go; we have yet to have a Black MSP and we still have a dominance of individuals educated in the same three universities. Representation matters because it is one illustration, one consequence of institutionalised inequality. We seek a representative parliament to ensure barriers are broken down to decision making positions and in the hope that those who have the honour of representing us, have a shared lived experience with us that will create better policy. But this cannot be assumed, and we must continue holding all 129 MSPs to account to create a fairer Scotland for all women.
No progress can be taken for granted and it is acknowledging how slow progress can be, that Women 50:50 was launched in 2014. In reality, this was a re-launch. The original 50/50 campaign was launched in 1994 ahead of the first Scottish Parliament elections, where women’s rights activists, trade union women and allies led the calls for equal representation at Holyrood. It was a hugely influential and important campaign which included rallies, letters to newspapers and even its own song!
Ahead of this campaign, in order to successfully deliver equal representation the STUC women’s committee originally suggested a recommendation for seat allocation in Holyrood to be two representatives (one man and one woman) from every constituency in Scotland. This recommendation was, of course, not taken forward but the vocal campaigning did pay off and compelled parties to work harder at recruiting women candidates. The 1999 election saw 48 women elected (37% of the parliament); a higher proportion than any previous election at Westminster.
Since then, the 2003 election saw another increase in women’s representation taking us to 38.5%, however, as parties were not being scrutinised in the same way regarding the make up of their candidates, 2007 and 2011 saw decreases in the number of women elected, 33% and 34% respectively; illustrating just how much work was still needed to be done to make women’s equality a necessity rather than the “extra add-on” it was perceived as by political parties.
The Women 50:50 campaign was launched after the independence referendum in 2014, when we saw raised interest in political debate and a phenomenal turnout of 84.5%. To harness this political interest, women from across the political divide came together to launch a renewed focus on women’s representation and push for culture change within politics; which remains exclusionary, particularly for women, unpaid carers, working class communities, communities of colour and disabled people. Alongside the already influential women’s organisations in Scotland and newly formed organisations like Women for Independence and The Parliament Project, the level of scrutiny on political parties and their inclusion of women, returned and across Scotland, expectation was set for parties to field more diverse candidates, as well as having a zero tolerance policy to sexism, racism and all forms of bigotry. This movement, which belongs to all of us and is the product of hard work by many groups, has created change and has a hand in delivering the diversity we have seen in this election.
However, there is still so much more to do. In particular we must ensure that the lessons of Covid-19 are learnt and remote working continues in our parliament, making the work of an MSP much more accessible. We must do all we can to stamp out anonymous social media abuse which disproportionately targets women MSPs and in particular women of colour. We must have better reporting mechanisms and trusted interventions by political parties, so women have faith to come forward and report abuse or harassment, and finally, we must have courageous political parties which deliver policies that make women’s social, economic and political justice a reality.
There is much to do and progress still feels too slow. We need to pick up the pace, and deliver a parliament and policies which will transform women’s lives in Scotland.