31 August 2015

De-fossilising the SNP

In 1999, thirty five SNP MSPs were elected to Holyrood. 43% of our parliamentarians - fifteen - were women. 2003 was a tough year for the party. The Lib-Lab coalition retained office. The SNP - then reliant on list votes - made several constituency gains but got eaten alive by the surging Greens and SSP in the regions. The total parliamentary delegation slumped to twenty seven, with women losing out disproportionately. Just nine of the twenty seven SNP MSPs returning to Holyrood were women (33%).  

2007's great leap forward under the restored Alex Salmond saw forty seven SNP MSPs returned - up twenty. But against that backdrop of success, once again the party had failed to balance up its gender representation. Only twelve of the forty-seven - 26% - were women. Remarkably, even the 2011 landslide did next to nothing to promote gender equality in the party delegation. Of the 69 MSPs returned, nineteen were women, catapulting the percentage up to a measly 28% of the total. 

Against that stinking record of gender equality, I've been taking a particular interest over the last week in how the party's 2016 slate is shaping up.  On the evidence of recent polling, we can expect the SNP to put in a sound constituency showing in 2016. As a consequence, who the party picks to contest Holyrood's seventy three constituencies is almost certain to have a profound impact on the gender balance of the group elected. In March this year, party conference finally backed the principle of imposing an all women shortlist where the incumbent MSP stands down. 

Given the embarassment of the data presented above, and the party's sustained failure since 2003 to match its growth with growth in its female parliamentary delegation -- you can understand why. The evidence already underscores the importance, and the impact, of that decision. Cue some noises off - the usual Jurassic-era grumblings of frustrated male ambition. But even the general Election of 2015 furnished its own (rather modest) rebuke to Holyrood. Twenty of the fifty six SNP MPs are women - 36%. So how is 2016 looking? 

I've put together this spreadsheet of  who the party has nominated thus far. As you might expect, the imbalance of 2011 leaves behind it a legacy of inequality. Understandably, many of those returned to Holyrood have been keen to stay on. Constituency incumbents will make up 58% of those nominated to stand for the party next year.

Nine serving SNP MSPs are stepping down, including three women: Margaret Burgess, Fiona McLeod and presiding officer, Tricia Marwick.  Two more - Nigel Don and Colin Keir - have taken daggers to the kidneys and been deselected by their local branches in Edinburgh and Angus. Six more still have to make their choice at time of writing: Dunfermline, Glasgow Pollok, Mid-Fife and Glenrothes, Motherwell and Wishaw, Orkney, and Rutherglen,

Taking all of that into account, where are we? Seventy one of the seventy three constituency candidates have now been selected. Twenty eight are women. This represents 39% of constituencies declaring. The  new candidate data tells a better story. In seats where the incumbent (a) stood down (b) has been deselected or (c) where the constituency is held by another political party, the current talley is seventeen women nominees out of the twenty nine constituencies which have declared thus far.  

So what of the outstanding seven seats to be contested? I'd be surprised if the high-profile Humza Yousaf doesn't snatch the Glasgow Pollok nomination. Fife will return a female nominee. (UPDATE: both of these things have come to pass just this afternoon. I am the Brahan seer of Scottish blogging [sic]).  Extrapolating on the basis of these figures, in 2016 the SNP will commend between twenty eight and thirty women to the people, representing 38% to 41% of its total constituency slate. This is real progress. It is to be commended. It underscores why the blunt instrument of all women shortlists was so necessary and so urgent. 

But if every single one of these candidates was elected next May, even the best of these percentages still leaves us in a worse position than 1999. Political parties have only limited control over outcomes. The people decide who to endorse. You have surprise victories and unanticipated defeats. Under the vagaries of the d'Hondt list system, tactical voting is a mug's game. I'm sure the next Holyrood election will be no different. 

But at least the SNP has finally ignored the disgruntled noises off from the unreconstructed - the self-pitying whimper of the stegosaurus, the girn of the disappointed iguanadon - and has begun to defossilise the party's gender representation. Not before time.


  1. Yes it is progress and the SNP deserve commendation for the effort.

    NB: Iguanodons didn't make it to the Jurassic but were one of the mst successful didnosaur species of the Cretaceous. I gather sunbeds and erratic mating patterns did for them in the end.

    1. Well, that's one of the most appalling, egregious errors I've seen in a comment on here...

      The Cretaceous followed the Jurassic, so your iguanodon timescale is off!

    2. You are absolutely right Mr Faulds. Oh dearie me [hangs head in shame]

    3. Do you have anything to say, why sentence of death should not be passed upon you, Mr Moore?

      *prepares asteroid*

    4. My Lord Braxfield, I am too embarassed to plead my case.

      As the last of the dinosaurs said in the Cretaceous extinction, gazing at the sky, well we all have our time, and asteroid time right enough.

    5. I've heard of a haemorrhoid preparation, never of an asteroid one...

  2. Oh well done on Humza Yusuf. Not perhaps the riskiest prophecy but still.

  3. The American author Thomas Sowell has written more sense on this subject than any salient Scottish political figure has ever even contemplated.

    Equality of the sort you describe is an oppressively boring idea.

  4. One also has to ask, what percentage of the applicants are female?

    Some careers attract women and men in unequal proportions. My own profession, having determinedly cold-shouldered women for generations, moved to sex-blind selection in the 1970s. As a consequence, over 80% of the vet students at some universities are female. The reason is that the profession is now disproportionately attractive to women, and they apply in large numbers. The 80% female student figure reflects the pool of applicants, as opposed to the general population.

    Should the veterinary profession introduce a male student quota to redress this discriminatory imbalance? Discuss.

    I have a strong suspicion that being a parliamentarian tends to appeal more to women than to men. If this is so, is it not more equitable to aim for a final ratio that reflects the ratio in the applicant pool, rather than in the general population? Otherwise there is a genuine risk that individuals who happen to be of the less well-represented sex will be chosen on the basis of chromosome count rather than ability.

    If the applicant pool is only (say) 35% female, what's required is an effort to encourage more women into that pool, if that's seen as desirable. Not quotas. However, if it turns out that women are simply less attracted to the job, why insist on imposing an artificial ratio? We wouldn't get away with it in the veterinary profession.

    1. Vets do not represent the people though. Nor do people in my own profession, engineering, which is dominated by men. The job of an MSP (or MP, or MEP, or councillor) however is quite literally to be a representative of the people. We should therefore expect that our parliamentary/council chambers are as representative of the people as possible, and if that isn't the case, endeavour to rectify it. That means more women, more BME, more LGBTI+ (or a better spread thereof!) and more young people. Now, agreed, strict quotas are not the best way to tackle all of those, but they are a relatively neat, simple way to tackle gender imbalance.

    2. That's an interesting point, and I can see it as a reason for pressing for better balance than there has been in the past. Whether it's necessary to take this as far as 50% I'm not sure. I don't feel under-represented as it is, actually.

      I still maintain the solution is to encourage more capable female candidates to put themselves forward though, not to institute divisive and arguably inequitable quotas.

  5. I don't understand this comment publishing process, I thought that I had posted a comment here but nothing has appeared so I am having another bash, please excuse my ignorance...

    Dear god, gender balance is such an obviously a false god, nothing to do with democracy, which by defination is , must be, random and chaotic

    Which fact of nature is indeed wherein lies its strength and potential to escape and thwart the growth of ludicrous regimes such as fascism and communism...so what business is it of yours if the gender balance true democracy throws up is random and skewed one way or another?

    Of course it is none of your damned business,but yet you cannot accept a world not made in your image where some artifically imposed gender balance is the be all and end all of democracy which is why you are hellbent on imposing your will and subverting real, effective and random democracy at the earliest possible stage, before it has even begun.
    That gender balance has so little to do with democracy and everything to do with swollen-headed desire to rebuild the world according to the latest politically correct theory of how it ought to be, if only it had been created by all knowing, politically correct god such as yourself.

    Why do I have such contempt for the "politically correct" theory of party control and imposition of order onto the chaos of humanity?

    Look at the history of the politically correct movements of the twentieth century, from communism through fascism to crony pseudo capitalism of Thatcher, wherein only one view was deemed to be politically correct and the ruling elite all subscribed to that idiocy, and the random brilliance of human minds excluded by the ruling elite's ability to subvert democracy to their own satisfaction, all of which apparently made perfect sense to them at the time.

    Leave democracy alone you fools, it is the right of every man and woman to put themselves forward at every election, and the right of every man and woman to vote for the candidate they wish to see in parliament, quite irrespective of whether or not that happens to be to your or any party leader's satisfaction.

    Once you accept any deviation from that principal that the people are sovereign and the right to stand and vote is not in the gift of any one, to give or with-hold according to their version of political correctness and that sovereign right of every individual never could or should should be so easily subverted by the whim of the gods of the politically correct, you have lost the battle before it is begun, for if you won, it would be built upon a falsehood that would require ever more ludicrous perversion of democracy to sustain.

    That the ruling elite of the SNP cannot see this and have behaved so monstrously as to impose short lists of the politically correct clones of Nicola has taken the wind from the sails of freedom, I felt it as a terrible body blow, as surely and rightly dooming us to defeat as if we had been taken over by some cabal, an elitist cadre hell bent on ensuring that an independent Scotland could only be independent on their terms, whether that means independent in name only, as in ruled by diktat from Brussels, or ruled by some godforsaken need to put gender balance before whatever the choas and wonder of human perverse refusal to kow-tow to the party would otherwise have allowed to prosper .

    damn you and your stupid self righteous betrayal of our one and only chance to allow true freedom to grow from whatever random gender balance mother nature and the chances of the evolutionary politics of humanity, the survival and triumph of of the fittist minds and individuals each able able to stand up unhindered and without artificial help for true freedom, not your squalid perversion, imposing mindless order upon the magnificent chaos of the spirit of humanity.

  6. Excellent piece, and interesting timing coming out on the same day Wings over Scotland had a wee joke/ is scathingly critical/ is bemused by (I'm not sure which) the Greens inevitably clumsy (but important) attempts to acknowledge the need to include candidates who don't identify as women or men.

    I am really curious as to why some of our best ScotIndy bloggers have such difficulties with this when they are so perceptive and passionate about righting so many other injustices.

    The way Nicola Sturgeon put this was, as usual, really straightforward:

    "“People say to me, ‘I don’t want quotas, I don’t want all women shortlists because I believe people should get on on merit’. I absolutely 100 per cent believe in that, I think people should get on on merit.

    “The problem is that’s not what happens very often just now. If we had a system that was purely based on merit, we’d have gender balance because women are 52 per cent of the population, and unless you think that women are somehow less capable, then if we had a merit-based system we wouldn’t have these problems of under-representation of women.

    “I do think we need to look at system-wide approaches to deal with that so we can one day get to a position where all of these decisions are entirely based on merit.”


    1. " If we had a system that was purely based on merit, we’d have gender balance because women are 52 per cent of the population."

      As I remarked above, that's simply not true. It assumes that women and men will apply in a ratio equal to their presence in the population, and they simply don't. SNP membership is around 60% male I believe, and applicants for candidate vetting much the same if not even more male-dominated. In this situation you have to manipulate the selection process so that a higher percentage of female applicants are accepted to achieve an artificial "balance". Assuming that the male and female applicant pools are comparable as regards talent and ability, this inevitably leads to less able female candidates being accepted ahead of more able male candidates.

      I thought Nicola was bright enough to understand this.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Hi Rolfe,

      I think Nicola is definitely bright enough to understand this and the point is that if less women than men are applying then that indicates that deeper changes are needed to the way we conduct politics to ensure that it is equally attractive to women as to men.

    4. Yes, I thought so too. It's a pity she doesn't make the point explicitly though.

  7. "women losing out disproportionately" - why select women if they can't hold their seats? ;)