Gender-balance zipping system causes Labour awkward problem ahead of Holyrood election

Foysol Choudhury is number three on Labour's Lothian listFoysol Choudhury is number three on Labour's Lothian list
Foysol Choudhury is number three on Labour's Lothian list
Lothian could be set to elect its first ethnic minority MSP at the Holyrood elections in May.

Foysol Choudhury, chair of the Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equality Council, has secured the number three slot on Labour's list for the area.

The party currently has three MSPs in Lothian and one is standing down, so there's a reasonable chance Mr Choudhury will find himself in the Scottish Parliament, though Labour’s current poll ratings mean it cannot be guaranteed.

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However, there has been controversy about the list positions because of the system used to decide them. Party members in each region rank candidates in order of preference, but in an effort to achieve a gender-balanced group of MSPs, the lists are "zipped", with alternating male and female candidates.

There was no surprise that sitting MSPs Daniel Johnson and Sarah Boyack took first and second place in Lothian. That meant the third slot would go to the male candidate with the next most votes - Mr Choudhury.

The controversy comes because his 63 votes were far fewer than the next woman candidate, Maddy Kirkman, who got 343. The third-placed woman, Kirsteen Sullivan, also polled more than Mr Choudhury, and was going to be number six on the list because of zipping despite finishing fourth overall in terms of votes – but male candidate Nick Ward swapped with her to give her fifth slot.

Ms Kirkman wanted Mr Choudhury to do likewise so she could have the number three placing. Zipping, she argued, was introduced to address "a historical and ongoing marginalisation of women’s political representation" and a system which pushed women down in favour of men reinforced the problem rather than tackling it.

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Others point to the under-representation of ethnic minorities and urge people to consider how bad it would look if the party tried to replace a minority candidate with a white one.

Ms Kirkman responds by adding that she is not only female but also disabled, another group who are not properly reflected in the make-up of the Scottish Parliament.

It’s an awkward situation for Labour however you look at it – though however imperfect Labour's system might be, some might say it is preferable to the one the Conservatives have adopted this year where a small group close to the leadership "endorse" the candidates they want members to vote for.

In the end, Labour seems to have concluded the zipping outcome should stand because everyone knew the rules and it would be wrong to change them now. The party’s Scottish executive committee approved the final list at the weekend with Mr Choudhury number three.

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Lothian was not the only region where men ended up benefiting from Labour’ zipping arrangement – though in some cases the men who got fewer votes have swapped to give them higher places.

Supporters of zipping say if women lost out in Lothian, they gained elsewhere.

And Anas Sarwar, favourite to be the next Scottish Labour leader, has given up top spot on the Glasgow list despite receiving the most votes in order to ensure half of the lists are topped by women.

But Labour has already committed to review the zipping system before the next Scottish Parliament elections – and it seems more than likely it will not be used again in its current form.

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