1 March 2010

Scottish (Labour) women in power: an analysis

If I had one major criticism of the Active Learning Centre’s Women in Power: Impact of women ministers on Scottish Devolution 1999 – 2007 report, it is that it fails fully to critically engage with the contested politics of its informers. While it is perfectly justifiable to be interviewing a cohort of politicians drawn from a limited, partisan pool, particularly justified when you are trying to understand women ministers’ experiences, caution seems indicated. In what respect am I capturing Labour women’s views? In part, some of this can be chalked up to the report’s own normative voice. While I’d argue that some of the women’s responses have a more generalisable applicability – in particular, how men find it easier to be ‘taken seriously’ by other men - there are other, sneakier presumptions and characterisations operating. One engaging theme to emerge (confirming other views I've regularly heard expressed) is that female politicians bend their ears to their political echo in a way that men simply don’t. Women being seen as emblematic of their gender in politics in an exceptional, interesting way, literally worthy of comment, while being a man is simply normal, uninteresting and in this sense, beneath critical comment or discussion. There is a stoating quote from one of the informers, capturing this dimension very neatly:

“I get asked all the time to go talk about being a woman in politics. I always start by saying ‘I wonder if there is a man anywhere in the country tonight doing a talk about being a man in politics…’ and of course there won’t be because everyone still assumes that if you are in politics you are a man.”


Try to imagine the Maximum Eck reflecting on how mores of masculinity play out in his political choices, or Iain Gray confessing that his omega-male status animates his faltering rage at FMQs. It is difficult to conceive - and that difficulty is not innocent, but tells us something crucially important about our 'common sense' of gender in 21st Century Scots politics.


My reservations largely relate to aspects of Labour social policy that are often unproblematically identified by the authors with some idea of women’s policies. While I have far more sympathy with this idea than most of the post-gender folk out there, I do appreciate critical self-reflection on this. Reflection which the report cheerfully neglects to offer. While on one level, the document is merely presenting the self-understanding of Labour insiders, and thus replicates their judgement that Labour’s policy and women’s policies interpenetrate – we might cast a more judicious eye over this analysis. In particular, it perhaps explains something about how Labour women politicians construct their female opponents, when their views do not coincide – or explain the (oft times tedious) harping from Labour that they are the only party who believes in any number of social policies for the common weal - their greedy patrimony of fairness. This claim is not self-evident, however. It shouldn’t need much arguing to demonstrate that one can cogently oppose anti-social behaviour legislation without being anti-women.


It would be of interest to repeat the research – but with an extended sample. In particular, the inclusion of one Committee convenor (see below) seems to me to have been of limited usefulness – perhaps explaining the extent to which the report submerges that one individual, focussing on discussions of ministerial work. Engaging with the SNP’s women ministers as well as the wider group of female chairs of Holyrood’s committees would furnish us with a clearer, more politically balanced, image of women’s participation in government and in positions of parliamentary authority. That way, we’d be able to generate a more nuanced understanding of how gender politics connects to politics simpliciter. This research, despite its interesting qualitative flourishes, insufficiently engages with these concerns.


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As an aside, unless he has new secret evidence about what the report’s authors got up to, I’m reasonably sure that the sagacious Eddie Barnes of the Scotsman didn’t bother to read the report in detail or failed to understand it if he did. He quotes the names of eleven former female Labour ministers – Cathy Jamieson, Wendy Alexander, Susan Deacon, Sarah Boyack, Jackie Baillie, Patricia Ferguson, Margaret Curran, Rhona Brankin, Johann Lamont, Elaine Murray and Mary Mulligan, suggesting that all were interviewed. This list, coincides, you’ll be surprised to learn, with the list of all of the women involved in the Scottish executive during the period who are listed in Appendix 1 (Women in Power 2010, 31). If Eddie the Eagle had cast his perspicuous gaze across the methodology section of the study, however, he’d well know that the authors make clear that…


“… this research used qualitative, semi-structured interviews carried out between October 2009 and January 2010 to capture the narrative accounts of eight women who served, as government ministers, in the Scottish Executive between 1999-2007. (See Appendix 1) We also interviewed one woman who served as the chairperson of a Scottish Parliament committee during this period.”


This was ‘buried’ in the deep recesses of … er … page 4 of the document. Alternatively, since in his article he does reference the eight interviews, he simply can’t do basic arithmetic. Even then, its clear that the interviews included one Holyrood committee convenor on top, making for nine interviews in total (again, on the bemusing page 4). If he’d turned just one page, he would have noticed the remark that while “improving women’s representation is a matter for all political parties in Scotland … all but one, women interviewed were from one political party, the Scottish Labour Party.” Since we know that the Liberal Democrats appointed no women ministers during their coalitions, this non-Labour soul must be the committee convenor. This significantly narrows the potential informers, since we can exclude all blokes and all Labour Party politicians. I’m also assuming that the Convenor interview would be on a mandatory or subject Committee and hence, have more to say about their experience than a one-off ad hoc assignment.


Applying these rules, it could be the Liberal Democrat Margaret Smith, Convenor of the Health and Community Care committee of 1999 – 2003, Roseanna Cunningham who convened the Justice and Home Affairs Committee (June 1999 – September 2000) the Health Committee (2004 – 2007), Christine Grahame (SNP) on Justice 1 (September 2001 – March 2003) or Convening Health (2003 – 2004), Margo MacDonald’s stint on the Subordinate Legislation Committee (September 2001 – March 2003), Linda Fabiani on the European and External Relations Committee (September 2005 – April 2007), Bella in Chief, Annabel Goldie as Convenor of Justice 2 (June 2003 – February 2006). Almost certainly, one of these six women was the ninth-respondent.


She may be relieved, however, to be pursued by a journalist whose whiff for detail seems about as acute as a bloodhound with a heavy nose cold. Journalistic accuracy, eh? I stand in its presence and quake.

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