equality01SNP MSP Marco Biagi talks about how he has come to support the Women 50:50 campaign and sketches out a simple reform to elections that he thinks could make it happen.

In secondary school we were all in awe of the calm, collected ability of those seven academic high flyers who got the straight As in their Highers, all of them girls. At university my best friends were women – I know ‘some of my best friends are…’ is a terrible way to start any sentence even in the general neighbourhood the subject of discrimination, but it is true – in fact in my case it wasn’t just ‘some’ it was ‘all’. Together we took on an elitist, all-male society and together we tried (and failed) to get Germaine Greer elected as rector, though at St Andrews that was always going to be like selling Santa hats down the turkey farm. Time and time again I saw some women taking on male counterparts on their own terms and outperforming them.

Today the articulate feminism I hear often talks more of difference, and of adapting how things are done to the broadly though distinctly different set of preferences and experiences of women. Just as – to paraphrase Anatole France – the law in its majestic glory forbids both the rich man and the pauper to beg in the street, what can be seen from one perspective as a level playing field can be from another hopelessly tilted in one direction.

It is an intellectually intriguing debate that I can only ever engage with in abstract rather than through personal lived experience, so I will leave others to wage it. But what it meant is that for years I resisted the kind of proposal I have now come to support.

But first as parliament staff and now as a parliament member I have come to be in environments that are unmistakably male. Holyrood is one of those workplaces where the urinals are the toilets with queues.

I used to – actually still do – take pride that the SNP in the first parliament achieved a relatively balanced gender mix (16 women to 19 men). And for many a year too I though to myself that if the situation had been reversed, on principle I would abjure any kind of special recognition or advancement based on such an uncontrollable factor of my demography.

Who am I kidding? In my early days as a member of the SNP I was Token Young Person all the time, receiving the benefit of responsibilities and rewards on the basis of my age since that age was hugely under-represented. In more recent years being one of the (now rather impressively large) group of gay parliamentarians has undeniably afforded me extra political niches, and was I expect in the mix when I was thought of by my party as being the right choice in appointing a new deputy convener of Holyrood’s Equal Opportunities Committee.

And it is by this long, winding route that I have come to the conclusion that in local and national government the firm hand of policy needs to be applied. The underrepresentation is just too pervasive and too persistent. We need more than the targeted recruitment campaigns, or leadership and encouragement, or changes to hours and working practices that everyone gets behind. They just ain’t working. I long underestimated the scale of the challenge, the unconscious behaviours, and just assumed all but the most unreconstructed minority (eg that all male society) on my side of the chromosome gap really did accept women as equals. Experience has taught me differently. Business as usual will mean more glacial progress, a la Westminster. Our parliament will still provide the eyes of young women with a vista of difference and exclusion.

Is this the only way in which our parliament needs to better reflect the people it represents? No. The numbers of people in parliament with a disability – though many will be unseen – fall short of the 20% usually cited for the population. At the tender age of 32, my fellow MSPs are on average twenty years older than me, but also around ten years older than the average member of the electorate. If Holyrood gains the ability to legislate on its own elections we should use the opportunity to reshape itself.

So let me float just one modest proposal for discussion. If it gained power over elections, the Scottish Parliament should move to the single transferable vote (STV), long the preferred system of SNP, Lib Dems, the Greens and the UK’s Electoral Reform Society. Constituencies would elect between three and five members, and voters can choose between candidates from the one party as well as between parties. This is reasonably straightforward.

There would also be one added feature. Any party running in any constituency would have to put up a gender balanced set of candidates, and have at least one man and one woman running in that constituency. This heads off bitter selection battles, party hierarchy-forced retirements, or choices of which constituencies become men-only or woman-only of other solutions. It instead places a welcome onus on parties to bring forward a greater number of qualified female candidates from their membership. The critics who would always decry tokenism have to concede that the final decision lies with the voters. Those voters would also have the added benefit of a choice between candidates of the same party that STV allows for but does not always in practice provide. It could be an elegant solution that would ensure no MSP had a safe seat and so had reason to work hard, as well as causing winnable female candidacies to soar and female numbers in parliament to follow.

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  1. Is there anything you can do to prevent unsavoury and/or tacky ads appearing on the site? Some of them are not really in keeping with the progressive aims of Bella and her contributors. Just a thought 🙂

  2. Illy says:

    I have some problems with this. (Good intentions, bad implementation)

    Would you also want to apply it to:
    Physical Disabilities?
    Mental Disabilities?
    Sexual Orientation?
    Occupation? (I would bet good money that the percentage breakdown of MSPs’ previous occupations is nothing like the general populations’)

    If you say yes to any of those, would you want to require the whole grid of possibilities (A man and woman from each catagory, etc…)?

    There are a *lot* of types of discrimination in the world, and singling any one of them out like this will cause trouble.

    What about transex individuals? Would they count as their physical birth sex, or their current assigned sex? Would it matter if they are pre- or post- op?

    Forcing this by quota opens a *massive* can of worms, that I don’t think you’ve thought through all the way, and appears to me to be talking about organising bailing teams on the titanic.

    1. tartanfever says:

      Possibly the implementation of gender equality at Holyrood could provide a platform that will encourage other groups to become involved in politics and eventually stand for election, and lets face it, the overwhelming gender imbalance is by far the largest statistical anomaly we have to address.

      My biggest hope would be that more female participation would improve the language of debate at Holyrood.

      1. Illy says:

        I would expect that Hollyrood is far more representative of the male-female balance in Scotland than the “What I do to put food on the table and a roof over my head” balance in Scotland (Taking what the MSPs did before being elected, as it’s currently considered unfair to require them to hold down a normal job as well. (Though we do require quite a lot of our fire and lifeguard services to do that (I was suprised on Thursday when I was chatting to a fireman outside the polls, I thought the fire brigade was full-time employment)))

        And like I said: Good intentions, Bad implementation.

    2. mic1973 says:

      The gender discrimination issue is something that affects half the population (well, it affects us all really). As the title states 50/50. But then, what about the other power holders in business and banking?

    3. Crubag says:

      I’d say that class (which is largely a matter of education and occupation in the modern economy) is a bigger social divide than gender or sex, when it comes to politics.

      And political parties have become more homogenous over time, with fewer coming into parliament having had a life outside of politics. The career path of intern – researcher – candidate – legislator is now well established, but will require family funds to allow you to enter the lottery of intern/researcher.

  3. Political Tourist says:

    Totally support STV for elections.
    Would like to see a 50/50 male/female set up for election candidates.

  4. caperash says:

    STV great. Your interest in gender laudable. However, I have always felt that the best way to deal with it is not have men and women competing for the same vote, which tends to make both candidates assume basically ‘masculine’ roles and behaviours, it being intense competition by definition. Rather, all chambers from local to nation should have 50-50 gender balance by, for example, having each constituency run one man and one woman for each (currently single) seat. So the Parties (a terrible system which also should be scrapped but that’s a whole other kettle etc.) would field one man and one woman for each seat and the combined votes of the man and woman would determine the winner(s) of that seat(s). This means that men won’t be competing with women and vice versa which will, over time, help soften and raise the dance between the gender throughout the entire society.

    Two basic ways of doing it: let’s say SNP are running against Labour (simple example), and SNP Male wins 5,000 and SNP female wins 10,000, that totals 15,000, and if the total of Labour is only 10,000 for the male and 4,999 for the female, totalling 14,999, SNP will wins and both the man and woman will go to the next higher chamber. A simpler (and I think better) way would be for the women of the various parties to compete for the Female Seat, and the men for the Male Seat. In this way, the Women will tend to articulate policies and issues mainly from a more feminine point of view, and the same for the men. This is both ultra-conservative in many ways, but also beyond the current progressive notions of pretending that we are all exactly the same and yet (too often I suspect) women crying foul when they get exposed to the rough and tumble of an often hostile, dog-eat-dog male world, not all of which is always from neurosis, but involves the struggles and conflicts that are a necessarily and inevitable part of human relations. Every military, familial and business organisation has to develop ways of dealing with both cooperation and conflict, not to mention both vertical and horizontal hierarchy and class. There is no way to eradicate this; the challenge is to do it in an effective, even enlightened, way.

    No matter which method, if a chamber has 100 seats, there will be 50 men and 50 women and there will always be that 50-50 split. Also, rather than sit by Party alone (assuming they still exist), the chamber can be split into two sides, men on one side, women on the other. Committees can be shared, but also there could be some men-only and some women-only committees. The whole gender issue becomes both pacified and energised by such an approach.

  5. AbuEmma says:

    The problem with STV for a general election is that it is not really a proportional system. In a 3 member constituency a party needs to win 26% of the vote to win a seat. Even in a 5 member constituency a party or individual would need to win 17% to gain representation. It is worth noting that in the last Scottish election in 2011, the highest vote won by the Greens was 7.6% in the Lothians. If this had been a STV election the Greens would not have their single seat. In a 7 member constituency, which is what the regional list is, a party still needs to win as much as 13% of the vote to win a seat. STV is not good for smaller parties and worse than our present system. Mr Biagi’s proposal may help achieve a gender balance, but only at the expense of shutting out smaller parties and independents. If we are to consider changing the electoral system for Holyrood, it should only be to make it more proportional and not less.

    1. denismollison says:

      STV is more proportional, even in 3 and 4 member seats, than you’re suggesting here. The quotas you refer to are what’s needed after transfers. It’s quite possible to get elected with far fewer first-preference votes, especially if you’re a party that attracts second preferences. For example in Glasgow in 2012 the Greens won 5 of the 79 seats (6.3%) although they only had 5.55% of first-preference votes. In two of the 5 they won they had less than 10% of f-p votes. In contrast, the Conservatives only won 1 seat (1.3 %) despite having 5.94% of f-p votes; that was partly luck of the draw, but also because they are few people’s second choice. See http://www.macs.hw.ac.uk/~denis/STV_elections/SC2012/index.html for details of how each election worked out.

      STV has virtues of being voter-centred, allowing you to vote for individuals not party lists, and constituencies can be designed to fit communities – for example under STV there are many council areas that would make natural constituencies (under the present system, my own local constituency was recently changed from an Edinburgh/East Lothian mix to a Midlothian/East Lothian mix – I don’t identify with either). If you believe individual candidates matter – and like being able to choose between 2 candidates of the same party – then exact proportionality between party votes isn’t an absolute virtue.

      1. Crubag says:

        Or indeed someone who has excllent life experience or knowledge to put at the service of the people – but who hasn’t spent their life in party politics (one might preclude the other…?) so being able to vote for an individual is better than a list where a political club decides who you get.

        Political parties, like any club, tend to reward those who have served their time. That may not be the best basis for being a legislator, and being able to vote for individuals – of what ever party or none – breaks down the party barriers.

  6. Tommy B says:

    I think it could, though not necessarily must make for competitiveness between candidates, I could imagine a sort of play off where male and female candidates address an audience, which would primarily be party enthusiasts but to which the public are encouraged to attend, where each candidate from the same party, can be judged on their effectiveness to communicate, to do the job of representing the public and their party. Alas, though great communicators to an audience, some might be ineffectual in as important, one-to-one situations. It would be good to hear from people who will differ in policy details and approach, but not broad goals: independence; a publicly funded NHS, schools, further and higher education; non-nuclear policies; welfare provision as a right and with dignity etc. but unlike such a discussion between members of differing parties on these subjects, consisting of confrontational, entrenched positions and point-scoring, it would be relaxed, without rancour but instead in good humour as amongst friends, this would be constructive, instructive, could be a useful device for publicising these common aims, the battle of the sexes component only the hook to capture public engagement and increase participation and I doubt the audience members would choose their ‘winner’ based purely on their sex being the same as their own, or their photogenecity or sexual attractiveness.

    It wouldn’t necessarily though be meritocratic, public speaking, public image, demagoguery being measured, not breadth of imagination, commitment or intellect, but it will never be meritocratic if excluding half or any other large portion of the public.

    I concur with what you’re saying on unseen disability, even well-known conditions such as diabetes are limiting and can have complications, the word disabled is too often a incorrect shorthand for a much wider range of impairment. One of many mistakes of the Incapacity Benefit to ESA welfare reforms were such simplistic generalisations, people could sit in a chair or lift an item or were ambulatory without aids, but did not take into account those often too weak, too cold, too tired most of the time through wider health problems, the testing seemed designed to ignore. In political life these people though fiercely intelligent, could not cope with the rigours of playing an active political role, who’re not imminently at death’s door into the medium term, but who would not, could not be effective as councillors and as MSPs or even party or campaign activists, Margo MacDonald epitomised both aspects of disability, as her health worsened, clearly it was a struggle for her, but she was also an inspiration. Many people with no evident disability know their own limitations, when other’s don’t, who categorise them as lazy, know they cannot compete with the energy of the averagely fit and healthy, and who not only take a back seat, but are absent completely from political life, except perhaps as online polemicists adrift in some nook of the internet. In general anything that can be done to avoid creating an elite remote political class, which all too often slide into corruption, which Westminster typifies is good, and these ideas of Marco’s (and others) might be on the right lines.

    There does need to be a recognition too that the failures of progressive politics to make headway (though not as badly now in our Scottish Parliament or in our evolving Scottish political scene), can in part be attributable to the preponderance, the dominance of heterosexual men. There are however no perfect beings, that all can err and can fail equally probabilistically, seems to me a certainty.

  7. Morag says:

    I’m surprised anyone is keen on STV. Having watched it in action in the council elections, I am SO not a fan. All the machinations about how many candidates to put up, and splitting your own vote, and then what happens if the last-elected candidate dies and there’s a by-election?

    The more I see of d’Hondt on the other hand, the better I like it. Surely there is some way of tweaking it to deliver better balance? Maybe start with open lists, or giving the voters some input into selection of list candidates?

    1. denismollison says:

      By-elections are a problem for STV. But “vote-splitting” and “putting up too many candidates” are more imaginary than real. If a party puts up too many candidates, one (or more) will be eliminated, but the votes don’t get lost, they’re transferred to the voters’ next preferences, which will usually be other candidates of the same party – and if they aren’t, it’s because the voters are not seeing the choice in simple party terms, as is their right.

      The d’Hondt system on the other hand leads to many wasted votes, not to mention the strange trade-off between list and constituency seats. I think I’m right in saying that in 2011 the list votes enrtirely determined the overall party numbers of MSPs – yet most of the media focus was on constituency contests.

      [Of course the constituency contests made a huge difference to which individuals were elected; the SNP have learnt to play the game by duplicating constituency and list candidates, whereas Labour, who’ve always viewed list seats as second class, lost many of their leading MSPs because they had no backup place on a list.]

    2. Doug Daniel says:

      Agreed, after analysing the results of the Aberdeen council elections in 2012, I really am not a fan of STV. If you think about all the elements of an election that people have in mind when trying to decide the perfect voting system (proportionality, control resting with voters rather than parties, minimal vote wastage), it seems to fail at pretty much all of them.

      Proportionality only happens by accident, because if a party only has one candidate in a three-member ward, they can never get more than 33% of the seats, even if they get 100% of the first-preference votes. A party could feasibly get 19.9% of the vote in every ward and thus 19.9% nationally, and yet not win a single seat. Conversely, a party could get 49.8% of the vote in a three-member ward, split between two candidates equally, and end up with no seats.

      So voter management comes into play, which means trying to guess how the electorate are going to vote. “Can we be sure we’ll get two candidates elected here? No? Well we’ll just put one forward then, because we need this person to be elected.” The electorate decides it wants multiple candidates from Party A elected, but is foiled by Party A trying to predict the outcome.

      I don’t like the idea of a party being punished for being ambitious, and STV absolutely does this. It locks parties into a small-c conservative attitude.

      Why don’t we use the Open List system? Most of the countries we like to compare ourselves to in Europe use it in one election or another. It means parties aren’t punished for trying to increase their number of seats, but gives absolute power to the voter, who can decide for themselves if Candidate A really is Party A’s top candidate – so would probably stop Richard Baker ever being elected, to put it bluntly. It’s proportional through design, not by accident. And it doesn’t give you that gnawing feeling that someone has only been elected by being bland enough to get through on second- and third-preference votes.

      I’m really not sure what problem it is that STV actually solves, unless people really think getting their fifth-preference elected means their vote actually “counts”.

      1. denismollison says:

        I don’t think you understand STV. For example, if a party gets 49.8% of the vote, split between 2 candidates, of course one of them will get in, at least once the other is excluded.

        More generally, there’s very little evidence that putting up too many candidates harms a party’s chances. If you have any good examples, I’d be interested to see them.

        On the more theoretical side, STV arguably does have minimal wastage. And it allows voters to put down thier real preferences rather than having to vote tactically.

  8. Stuart Murray says:

    The article was very interesting, but I have some thoughts swirling around on a different topic. Regarding the possibility of there being another referendum in the next few years, I think many assume (as I have) that when Westminster votes-in a Tory/UKIP coalition at the next election, the subsequent cuts to public services are going to be so devastating that many (if not most) of the people who voted ‘No’ will come to realise their folly, and will – as a result – be primed for independence. I’m still sure of the first part of that theory (that subsequent cuts will be devastating and that more people will feel angry), but I’m not sure this will make people more likely to vote Yes. The city most affected by extreme poverty in Scotland at the moment is probably Glasgow. So why did Glasgow have one of the lowest turnouts? Why did Shetteston, which by Western standards is on it’s knees economically, vote overwhelmingly ‘No’? Do we underestimate the power of the British media/establishment if we think harder times = more Yes votes? When the next independence referendum does come (if it is a referendum), the British establishment’s cry will be, “Yes, times are hard. Times are hard for all of us, in this Family of Nations (!). And because they’re hard, do you really think now is the best time to be taking further risk?”.

    The other assumption we make (I think) is that a future Westminster EU-exit referendum will anger so many Scots that former-No voters will bellow from the rooftops for an independence referendum. I wish this were true, but I’m not sure it is. In every interview I’ve seen of Alex Salmond discussing EU membership, he is solid in his belief that Scots want to be part of the EU club. Alex knows a lot more about Scottish opinion than I do, but I do wonder if opinion surveys have been carried out recently. The UKIP factor is pretty powerful. In the last couple of years, UKIP (and their Tory/BBC/Daily Mail friends) have just about convinced the UK electorate that EU-membership equals ‘open-door immigration’. I think a huge number of Scots have bought into this. It’s become such a part of the British psyche that I need to remind myself that EU-membership does NOT mean mass immigration. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that the incessant fear-mongering on this subject is what led many people to vote No in the Referendum. Are we Scots quite as open-minded as Alex believes? I wish we were. But if we’re not, isn’t it worth revising our plans with regard to EU membership? The Norwegians were asked in ’74 and ’94 whether they’d like to see Norway join the EU, and they said Nei both times. Is the Scots mentality on EU membership so different? If it’s not, why not instead join the European Free Trade Agreement? Wouldn’t it be more likely to attract new ‘Yes’ voters in any future indy referendum? This has probably been discussed a million times before, but I wonder what others think.

  9. Stuart Murray says:

    Apologies if I’m wrong about Shettleston, I think I was looking at the wrong results on the Glasgow City Council website.

    1. Stuart Murray says:

      They voted Yes (sorry Shettleston!) but, if I remember correctly, there were a few raised eyebrows at the number of No votes there.

  10. Ivan McKee says:

    Hi Marco, I had similar thoughts on this as follows :

    Why not 2 member constituencies with every constituency returning 1 male and 1 female. Each party stands 1 male and 1 female candidate for each constituency. The count proceeds as per normal STV until the point where a candidate is elected. At that stage all the other candidates of that gender are eliminated and their votes redistributed as per normal STV rules.

    Alternatively if get to the stage where there is only 1 male (or female) candidate left in the running and that gender slot hasn’t been filled then they automatically get elected to that ‘gender’ slot.

    Advantages :

    1. Guarantees 50/50 gender balance.

    2. Doesn’t rely on parties being forced to manage candidate selection to try and get women into ‘winnable’ seats. All the parties have to do is to stand 1 man and 1 woman in each seat.

    3. Isn’t tokenistic(the process is completely gender neutral, just as likely to have a man moved to top of the vote to ensure gender balance as the reverse).

    4. Everyone would have 2 constituency MSPs (1 man and 1 woman, and in most cases from 2 different parties).

    I’m pretty sure the maths works out (cant envisage a situation where it would result in a ‘freak’ result from a Party balance point of view) but stand to be corrected if I have missed something.

    To implement this would either double up the size of current constituencies and keep the same list top-ups as now, or have say 50% bigger constituencies together with reduced number of list members to preserve proportionality (the 2 member constituencies drive some proportionality into the system so don’t need as many list MSPs in order to ensure proportionality). List members would also be elected on gender balanced basis.

    1. Rob says:

      This is an idea we’ve talked about {friends and family} for years. It seems like the simplest way forward. 2 members for each seat 1 male 1 female.
      Yes perhaps the seats have to be larger, meaning fewer constituencies. but it would create a fantastic parliament. It just seems so simple and logical to me >:O)

  11. Fay Kennedy. says:

    There needs to be more people who are not looking for ‘careers’ be they male or female. And class is much more discriminatory than gender more often than not.There should be no more than two terms for each member and would help to keep nepotism and corruption to a minimum. This would facilitate a more inclusive political culture which is absolutely imperative if the notion of democracy is to have any real effect.

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