frontline 6

Achieving gender equality in the SSP

SSP members picket the Gap on International Womens Day 2001

SSP members picket the Gap on International Womens Day 2001

A major debate at this year's SSP conference will be on the question of 50-50 representation of men and women candidates on the party's lists for next year's Holyrood elections, as proposed in a motion from the Women's Network (WN) of the party. Opinions are sharply divided on this issue and we are publishing one article by Catriona Grant (below) in favour of this position and one by Steve Arnott opposing it. Catriona is co-chair of the SSP and a leading activist in the Women's Network. Steve is the SSP's Highlands organiser.

Panaceas and platitudes

Catriona Grant puts the case for the WN motion on 50-50 representation.

It has been argued that 50-50 representation/gender equality is not a Marxist demand. I would argue against this point of view. Of course, as Marxists we are well aware that 50-50 representation on an Additional Member System (AMS) slate does not radically improve women's conditions. But neither does the status quo. The change for women we would like to see will only come from the policies, programme and action of the socialist movement, which in Scotland means the SSP. And we recognise the limits of bringing change through Parliament: only class action can bring the changes that will liberate women.

Women have shaped socialist history - the Lawrence strikers of 1912, the Clydeside rent strikers of 1915, women in the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Suffrage movement, the Women's Liberation Movement - to give just a few examples. Women's confidence is enhanced when they are involved in struggles. When women are not held back, history has shown us that they rush to the front of socialist struggles. But women are rarely in the leadership of political organisations and movements on the same level as men.

There are many reasons for that, but the main one is the ideology of the class system around us. The dominant ideology of capitalism portrays women as not suitable to be leaders. Just watch the news of an evening, count the amount of "important people" who are men and who are women: discounting the "weather girl" and the newsreaders, women are virtually absent!


Men and women built the Labour movement together. Before the trade unions women organised welfare organisations and benefit societies. However it is true that women were disadvantaged from day one of the trade union and socialist movement because of their oppression and position in society.

Economic and social reasons make it difficult for women to participate equally with men. Women work in lower paid jobs, doing work which is seen as less important, and they suffer a double exploitation by also having to take on the majority of the burden of child care and housework. Also many women have experienced and may continue to experience violence and abuse at the hands of men and their experiences may undermine their involvement in politics.

Sometimes the effort needed to get to a meeting after caring for children and relatives as well as working can be too great. When almost every minute is accounted for, meetings and activity can be seen as a drain on family life. Babysitting and crèches don't automatically resolve these problems, but they can help ease the pressure.

Militant put forward specific demands to facilitate women's participation in activity and meetings, in particular for:

• good, well-run crèches and baby-sitting services to be provided;

• meetings to be organised at times and in venues convenient for women.

These were and are good demands and the SSP should take them up. However they come from a pamphlet produced in 1984... In 2002, despite some attempts to implement them, they are still little more than aspirations. How many more motions and amendments to conferences will we need before they become a reality? We need to take the bull by the horns to make them a reality. That would be a step forward, but it is not a panacea for solving the problems of women's involvement. When work amongst women is taken seriously then many more women will come to the fore and take leading positions.


The demand for 50-50 representation is not new. Under the influence of the Women's Liberation Movement demands were made in the Labour movement in the late 70s and early 80s for reserved seats and quotas for women. It was believed that bringing more women on to committees at local, regional and national level would compensate for past neglect and the disadvantages they suffered and improve their participation in the Labour Party.

It has long been argued that having reserved seats and quotas are "short cuts" and would have "dangerous implications" for democracy and that "representatives should be elected on the basis of their record and their policies". Militant argued correctly in 1984 that: "Women taking up reserved seats would be just as likely as men to become isolated from the membership if they are not subject to democratic control". But in 2002 things are different. Many trade unions do have reserved seats for women, UNISON having the most in order to address the lack of women shop stewards and representatives in the branches despite representing predominantly female workplaces. Few socialists would argue at UNISON conference to overturn the reserved seats because they "weren't democratic".

In the Labour Party of the 80s Militant rightly raised demands regarding democratic control over 'officials' and representatives. But the difference between the Labour Party and the SSP is not limited to policies and programme. All officers of the SSP are subject to regular democratic control and its elected representatives are committed to live on an average worker's wage.

The SSP is committed to equality of representation between the genders. The WN proposal is simply a mechanism to make that happen. We are not making a fetish of it. It is not a panacea. It cannot address all the problems of women's double oppression within the party or within society but it is a step forward, alongside organising and campaigning amongst women, raising demands that women are interested in and considering work amongst women as a priority and essential in building the party.

We need a strategy to build the party and to remove the barriers that have traditionally made women's involvement difficult. We need a full and frank discussion throughout the SSP and we need concrete action. Socialism cannot exist without women's involvement and their liberation.

50-50 representation would also deal with First Past the Post (FPTP) seats. To make the mechanism effective we would suggest at least four men and four women in each region, which would mean a minimum of 64 candidates (8x8=64). The Scottish Parliament has 73 FPTP seats. Presuming that all list candidates would also be FPTP candidates the SSP need only seek 9 more candidates throughout the party!


The SSP has gender equality as party policy. How would we be perceived if we fell at the first hurdle of committing ourselves to what we stand for? If we renege on this policy how can we be sure that we wouldn't fail to deliver the majority of our policies? Would we be able to nationalise the finance sector or the oil companies or close down Trident? Closing down Trident and taking into public control the likes of the Bank of Scotland and BP would take much more effort than delivering gender equality among the SSP's public representatives.

The WN motion is far from being undemocratic. No representative can be imposed. All candidates must be nominated at branch level before even being considered. They must then write an election address and be asked to address their regional meetings, where a ballot will take place (a crèche must be provided); the voting will be by Single Transferable Vote (STV) for the two separate lists - one for men and one for women. Genders will not be competing against one another but treated equally.

The Executive Committee will recommend which gender should top each list, which will be agreed or amended at the National Council after discussions within the branches. This would be known prior to the elections.

We want the working class and indeed the parties of capital to see that we are a party that means what we say. Gender equality is not a platitude and neither should policies, strategy and action to make it happen be seen as platitudes to pacify active women. Socialist women do not need compensated by our working class brothers for the wrongs of class society but we do want and need to be treated equally.

The question today is - is the SSP mature, inclusive and modern enough to allow gender equality for the 2003 Scottish Parliament elections? But we can't just stop there. There is now an expectation that there will be a strategy to politicise, educate and organise women in order that they are equally represented and involved throughout the party. The SSP will never be the same again.