Political parties need to ditch sexist attitudes and ensure half their candidates are women. Or sisters will start doing it for themselves – Susan Dalgety
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On Wednesday, the world celebrates International Women’s Day, the annual campaign to promote women’s issues and rights. The following day, the voters of Corstorphine/Murrayfield will choose their new councillor to replace former Lord Provost Frank Ross, who resigned last December after his SNP colleagues refused to support compensation for Roseburn businesses damaged by the cross-city cycleway roadworks.
The two events might at first glance seem unconnected, but they are inexorably linked. More than 100 years after the Socialist Party of America held the first National Women’s Day to highlight the campaign for women’s suffrage, there are still far too few women in local government here in Scotland.
The ballot paper for the council by-election is a graphic example of this imbalance. Seven of the nine candidates – more than three-quarters – are men. If you had stumbled into the election hustings last week in Murrayfield, you would be forgiven for thinking you had gone back in time to 1953, instead of being in the heart of a contemporary global city. The top table was dominated by white men, with only two women – the independent Elaine Miller and Lib Dem Fiona Bennett – amid all the blokes.
And snapshots on social media of party activists out campaigning show that they too are largely male – whether in Edinburgh or Aberdeen, where there was a by-election last week (yes, a bearded bloke won).
Political parties will point to the Scottish Parliament where 58 women were elected in 2021 – 45 per cent of MSPs – as a sign that women are no longer held back. And it would be churlish not to acknowledge that there has been significant progress in both Holyrood and Westminster, but for some reason councils remain a male domain.
In last year’s Scottish council elections, only 35 per cent of councillors elected were women. A modest improvement on the previous election, where female representation was 29 per cent, but still nowhere near good enough.
Councils are responsible for some of our most important public services such as schools and social care, where women are by far the biggest share of employees. Arguably women also depend on local services more than men, whether it is the lack of public toilets or poor public transport links, so surely there need to be far more women making decisions about how these services are delivered.
Women’s organisations Engender, Women 50-50 and Elect Her produced a campaign report recently which set out some ideas for transforming local democracy in time for the 2027 elections. Political parties are key. Despite protestations to the contrary, there remains a stubborn streak of sexism in politics – power is not blind to gender stereotypes – and women’s more collaborative approach is wrongly seen as weak by politicians keen to assert their dominance over their rivals – including those in their own party.
But old-style politics has failed our city, and our country. People want practical solutions to their very real problems, not petty point-scoring. Political parties could start by making sure that more than half their candidates for local government are women. Or the sisters might, like Elaine Miller, start doing it for themselves.