FEWER than one in four local election candidates in next month's polls will be women, provoking fears about the type of municipal politics Scotland will have during the next five years and calls for gender quotas to be imposed on political parties.

With men making up more than 70% of would-be councillors fielded by each of the major parties, academics at Edinburgh University claim the lack of female candidates on the ballot papers will stifle efforts to force progressive policies on issues such as domestic violence and childcare up the political agenda within local government. They add that women's voices are crucial during times of austerity.

The experts claim the May 3 elections "will almost certainly bring more of the same to Scottish local government", leaving councils "male, pale and stale".

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Ethnic minority candidate breakdowns are not yet available, but the authors of the report insist the evidence suggests these numbers also will be low.

Dr Meryl Kenny and Dr Fiona Mackay add that "the time has come for tough action on women's representation, or nothing is going to change any time soon".

They blame the culture of political parties at a local level for the poor showing of female candidates to number anything approaching parity, claiming quota systems would encourage more women into politics.

Females, they claim, face the same barriers in the political arena as other aspects of professional life, including "time poverty", childcare and other care responsibilities.

Candidate lists show 591 women are standing out of a total of 2497 hopefuls, or 23.6%, down from 27.7% in 2003. Females make up around 26% of the 362 standing for the Conservatives, almost 28% of the 497 for Labour, 28% of 247 Liberal Democrats, and 24.3% out of 614 SNP candidates.

The experts cite the Scottish Greens as leading the way in gender balance, with the party running 40.5% female candidates and placing them in winnable seats. The party also has gender balance mechanisms that are triggered if the percentage of female or male candidates drops below 40%, or where the distribution of winnable seats looks unequal.

Rhondda Geekie, Labour leader of East Dunbartonshire Council, one of only three female council leaders in Scotland, said: "These figures are a stark reminder of the scale of the challenge that Scotland faces. Local councils have to look like the communities they serve, or else they risk not serving those communities properly.

"The wards women stand in are key. It is insufficient to stand more women candidates unless they are in wards with a realistic prospect of them being elected. This year, Scottish Labour is standing nearly 50% more women than five years ago, but like all parties we need to go further.

"It is also very disappointing there are so few women council leaders."

Ms Kenny and Ms Mackay claim the success in ensuring better female representation among MSPs at Holyrood than in the 32 councils was achieved through internal campaigning and party action on setting gender quotas. There are 45 women MSPs, or 34.8%, compared with only 22% of Scottish MPs, 17% Scottish MEPs, and 21.6% of Scottish councillors. However, in local government, the percentage of women councillors has flat-lined over the past four elections.

The experts suggest that, given the reluctance of political parties to introduce quotas, changes to the law may be required.

The report asks: "Has the time come to consider statutory quotas, by which we mean legislation which requires parties to take positive action on women's representation, following the example of countries like Spain, Belgium, France, and even the Republic of Ireland, which is currently drawing up electoral quota legislation?"

Ms Mackay adds: "Parties say not enough women are coming forward, that it's a supply issue, but that's letting them off the hook.

"When you bring in quotas the supply increases, women see they'll be taken seriously in politics and that it's possible for them to succeed. Like other aspects of professional life they face fears over cash, care, confidence, careers and the culture they're entering into."

SNP local government campaign manager Derek Mackay said the proportion of female candidates had increased in 60% of the council areas where the Nationalists stood in 2007.

He added: "The key challenge remains in getting more female members to come forward as candidates. But clearly we have lessons to learn from those parts of the country which have significantly increased the number of female candidates this time round."

Scottish Conservative local government campaign organiser John Lamont insisted the party had increased its percentage of female candidates since the 2007 elections, and women would be encouraged further by the election of Ruth Davidson as party leader.

The statistics:


  • Women make up 591 of 2497 total candidates (23.6%, compared to 22.5% in 2007 and 27.7% in 2003).
  • 95 out of 362 Conservative candidates (26.2%)
  • 138 out of 497 Labour candidates (27.7%)
  • 69 out of 247 Liberal Democrat candidates (27.9%)
  • 149 out of 614 SNP candidates (24.3%)
  • 35 out of 86 Green candidates (40.7%)
  • 105 out of 691 Independent/Other candidates (15.2%)
  • 56 out of 353 wards (15.9%) have no women candidates standing for election
  • 9 out of 32 local authority areas (28%) have 20% or fewer female candidates standing
  • The best local authorities in terms of women candidates are Clackmannanshire (36.7%) and Angus (34%), although the current proportion of women councillors in each authority is substantially lower (22.2% and 27.6% respectively)
  • Inverclyde, currently an all-male council, has only one woman standing (Vaughan Jones, Labour) out of 38 total candidates (2.6%)
  • In Glasgow City, where the SNP hope to sweep the board after Labour’s internal strife, 2 out of 3 SNP slates are male only. This suggests that they aren’t prepared to "risk" women in target wards

Read the full report