Our Scottish political parties are all busy selecting candidates right now to fight the next Westminster election. Current polling suggests that Scottish Labour could make a bit of a comeback and win a sizeable number of seats. So being selected as a candidate could lead to being elected as an MP. This has put the need to promote gender equality firmly back on the agenda.
The route chosen this time by Labour is to twin winnable constituencies and select a man and a woman for each twinned pair of seats, the one with the most votes getting first choice. There are pitfalls with all forms of positive action and this one seems to result in the top male candidate always securing a higher vote than the top woman candidate and therefore getting to choose the most favourable seat. However, that won't matter if Labour does well, only if their success is minimal. Twinning seats was the route chosen by Scottish Labour when selecting candidates for the first Scottish Parliament elections in 1999. As a result, Holyrood was 37.2% women MSPs but women made up 50% of Scottish Labour MSPs.
Women represent over 50% of Scotland's population, but are still not proportionately represented in political life. At the moment, only 35% of UK MPs are women. The percentage of Scottish MPs who are women is 32% and 45% of MSPs, even higher than the first parliament in 1999. As with all gains for women, representation goes through a cycle of campaigning, achievement and backlash.
In 1997, women's representation in the House of Commons rose dramatically from 60 to 120 (of which 101 were Labour MPs thanks to the use of all women shortlists). In 1945, there were only 24 women, of whom 21 were Labour. However, the backlash after 1997 was swift, leading to legal challenges to all women hhortlists and eventually Harriet Harman had to steer through legislation to reinstate this approach.
Ironically, it's as a result of the success of all women shortlists that Scottish Labour is having to find another route to increasing the number of women candidates this time around. The law only allows for its use if women are underrepresented in your parliamentary party and the current Parliamentary Labour Party has over 50% women. Even without all women shortlists, Labour has managed to select 47 women and 53 men for the top 100 seats (the twinning system is only in Scotland).
Nowadays it has become totally normal to see women MPs and MSPs, and this has spurred all the parties to make progress on this. A few of the newly elected Scots Labour MPs in 1997 tell the story of them sharing a taxi to get to the Houses of Parliament. The taxi driver beamed at the women in the mirror and asked if they were wives of the new MPs. 'We are the new MPs,' they said in unison. That story seems very dated now.
In the days before all this, Scots women politicians had to be truly exceptional to be noticed in a male dominated profession. A few did stand out. There was Jennie Lee, from Lochgelly in Fife. As Minister for the Arts in Harold Wilson's Government of 1964–1970, she played a leading role in the foundation of the Open University with enrolment open to everyone irrespective of educational qualifications. In spite of her substantial achievements in her own right, she is remembered as the wife of Aneurin Bevan who gave us the NHS.
Judith Hart was Minister of Overseas Development for nearly all the years Labour was in government from 1969 to 1979 and served in the Cabinet. The MP for Lanark, she was a fierce opponent of apartheid in South Africa. Her legacy was the creation of the Department of International Development and the achievement of the UN Aid goal of committing 0.7% of our GNI, both achieved by the Labour Government elected in 1997. She also fought for the new department to be located here in Scotland at East Kilbride.
Not all great Scots women politicians were ministers. Maria Fyfe was the MP for Glasgow Maryhill, first elected in 1987. She was a huge supporter of the 50-50 campaign to ensure that the Scottish Parliament started life with an almost equal representation of women. After standing down as an MP, she led the successful campaign to erect a statue of Glasgow councillor and rent strike campaigner Mary Barbour.
Moving away from Labour, another great Scottish woman politician was Margo MacDonald. She was elected SNP MP for Govan aged 30 at a by-election in 1973, losing her seat at the General Election the following year. She then served as an MSP for Lothian from 1999 until her death in 2014. Her left-wing views and independent spirit put her at odds with the SNP leadership who tried to stop her being re-elected in 2003. She stood as in independent and got back in despite a leak to the press revealing that she had Parkinson's disease.
When the General Election comes, it may not give us another Jennie Lee or Maria Fyfe. But what I hope it does do is offer Scottish voters a fair balance of able men and women candidates from which to elect their new representatives at Westminster.