by Jamie-Lee Cole
Beyond the white noise of Westminster, the devolved forces in Wales and Scotland have been busy boosting gender equality in politics, through party policy for several years. Being Welsh, and a woman, I’m keen to find out if balancing representative politics is a matter for policy and whether formal ‘positive action’ has been effective.
The National Assembly for Wales became the first legislative body to achieve equal numbers of male and female representatives – the first in the world – by 2003.
How was this possible? The 2001 Sex Discrimination (Election of Candidates) Act was a national legislation change that allowed political parties to select candidates based on gender; an attempt to balance the UK’s male-dominated political arena.
In practice, it meant political parties could undertake a policy of ‘positive action’, allowing all-women shortlists (AWS) during elections.
However only parties on the left seemed to best utilise this, which had a substantial effect in Wales and Scotland because the left tends to dominate in those regions.
The effect did not snowball in Westminster due to more competition in constituencies from parties without all-women shortlists and Labour restricting its use to their ‘safe seats’ only. It suggests that national party representatives saw positive action as more of a risk than devolved party leaders.
DOES THIS STRATEGY WORK?
The 2001 Act was due to expire in 2015 but the Equality Act 2010 extended all-women shortlists until 2030 – so it may appear more nationally yet.
Thirteen years on however, positive action policy has been watered down within many of the devolved parties. Has this affected gender representation at the Senedd?
At the time of writing, 50% of leaders of the mainstream Welsh political parties are female; showing a trust in women to deliver party policies within mainstream politics.
The 2016 Senedd election saw 25 women elected as Assembly Members – just under half of seats, a backwards step. However, First Minister Carwyn Jones was rattled by the leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, who stood against him and won equal support from assembly members, creating an unexpected deadlock. Despite coming to an agreement that reinstated Jones, Wood’s tenacity goes from strength-to-strength as a high-profile political character.
Wales is yet to appoint a female First Minister, but in Scotland this was achieved in 2014. The SNP powerhouse and defender of all-women shortlists, Nicola Sturgeon, has now left a distinctive mark on Scottish and UK politics.
What’s the status of gender balance across the board? In 2016, Scotland houses 60% female Members of Scottish Parliament. Wales: 41%. In comparison, 29% of national representatives in the House of Commons are currently women.
This is standout proof that positive action achieves female attendance – the challenge is encouraging them to stand in elections.
HAVE ATTITUDES CHANGED?
When all-women shortlists were at their peak in the mid 2000s, a small backlash saw protests on the grounds of fairness, damaging the credibility of the women elected.
Since winning their seats, several women elected under positive action felt they had to work much harder on their reputation than their male counterparts to prove their worth. They also found their private lives focused on more intensely in the media.
Unfortunately we’ve seen a much deeper-rooted misogyny in Welsh politics, particularly from the right, despite an increase in female representation.
In a shocking incident, a UKIP assembly member recently made disturbing comments about Leanne Wood and Kirsty Williams during his maiden speech referring to the two party leaders as ‘political concubines’ in Carwyn Jones’s ‘harem’.
There are two layers of unsettling sexism to the above comment: firstly, it displays an opinion that women, even experienced politicians, have no independent agency and rely on male leadership. Secondly, the degrading language associates women with sex and submission – which would be shocking in any profession.
In conclusion, it’s probably too soon to tell how effective the Act has been, though I think the best indicators of its success has been the support shown for female leaders within their parties and the public.
The results of a recent ITV opinion poll showed popularity of leaders in the UK, where women shone over male leaders like David Cameron and Carwyn Jones.
Positive action puts women on the ground but expect a slight decline when the policy reduces in rigidity. However, exposure and results from all-women shortlists should help to balance political disparity on a deeper, more sustainable level and eventually the electorate will come to trust female politicians on their own.
In the bigger picture, re-balancing our political culture through positive, progressive change, and not through fear, should discourage greater socio-economic inequality, such as poverty and discrimination – and who wouldn’t be in favour of a mechanism that supports that?