IN a healthy representative democracy, the faces in the country's local council chambers should be a fair reflection of the communities they serve: all generations over 18, a fair sprinkling of ethnic minorities and, of course, around 50% women.
Instead, a report out this week warns that after May's Scottish local authority elections, the woefully small proportion of women councillors could shrink further. As Professor James Mitchell at Strathclyde University puts it, Scottish local politics look decidedly "male, pale and stale". White middle-aged and older men predominate. Since 2003 the percentage of female candidates has dropped from 28% to 23.6% and the proportion of serving councillors has stuck at arounda fifth since 1995. The SNP, which was reported to be aiming for 40% women candidates in May, has managed less than 25%, the poorest showing of the four main parties. Only the Greens, who have implemented effective equality measures, come close to a gender balance.
All-female shortlists remain a step too far for most of us. Yet, as Professor Fiona Mackay of Edinburgh University observes, we appear to tolerate all-male shortlists without complaint. In fact, one in seven council wards in Scotland will be all male. In Inverclyde, which seems to be the last bastion of patriarchy, there are no women councillors and only one female candidate. Good luck to her.
The introduction of the single transferable vote in 2007 has not improved matters. It may even favour men, suggests Prof Mackay, because they tend to have more time and money and better political networks. Because incumbents are generally more likely to win and most existing councillors are men, change was always likely to be gradual. How could it be accelerated, short of imposing quotas? Charities and community groups are bristling with female talent. Political parties could do more to encourage them to stand and train them. In large wards where parties field more than one candidate, is a balanced ticket too much to ask?
Why does this matter, beyond simple considerations of fairness? Because bodies containing a reasonable number of women pay particular attention to issues of special importance to them, like after-school care, daycare centres, welfare and tackling domestic abuse. If parties do not do more to encourage women into their ranks, the call for quotas will surely grow. Voluntary action is preferable.
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