frontline 6

Achieving gender equality in the SSP

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 in favour of this position and one by Steve Arnott (below) 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.

Why socialists should oppose the Women's Network motion

Steve Arnott argues against the WSN motion and proposes an alternative mechanism.

No socialist would disagree that increasing the number of women in Holyrood, and every other level of electoral representation, should be a key factor in our party's approach. Neither would any socialist disagree that women face additional difficulties and discrimination within the capitalist system that a socialist party must be aware of and attempt to counteract. And surely no socialist would deny that women bring a particular outlook and experience to the class struggle which enriches us all.

Why then, at our forthcoming conference, will the motion from the Women's Network, which tries to apply a mechanism for achieving our party's commitment to gender balance, possibly be the most controversial item on our agenda? Many SSP members throughout the country, men and women, are opposed to this motion, not because of the progressive goal which the motion is trying to achieve but because of the unsatisfactory means by which it sets out to achieve it.

The motion does not deal with the question of gender balance for constituency or council seats, only the second vote, list seats across the eight regions for Holyrood 2003. It says that regional lists should be themselves gender balanced (non-controversial) and that the top of the list for the eight target seats should see selected 4 men and 4 women. This is to be achieved by the National Council pre-determining which gender of comrade can be eligible to be nominated to top the list in each region "before any selection process is conducted" (my italics). Having been told which 50% of the population they can vote for to be their potential SSP MSP in Holyrood, members will then conduct a selection process to make up their regional list based on two separate lists per region, one for men, one for women.

There are four key objections to this proposed mechanism:

a) It seeks to achieve its goal by placing limitations on existing party democracy. Party members will lose the right to determine in a fair selection process who they wish their top of the list candidate to be. They will be able to select from candidates, but only candidates of the gender approved by the NC.

b) It seeks to address the problems of structural discrimination in society by introducing structural discrimination into our party selection procedures. Two wrongs don't make a right. If we adopt this procedure then good women candidates in four out of eight regions will effectively be barred from any chance of being selected to be top of the list in that region, regardless of how many party members might wish to nominate or vote for them. Good male comrades are effectively barred in the other four regions.

Separating men and women in the selection process cuts across working-class unity. This mechanism would force us to see potential candidates not as a good socialist or the best socialist for the job, but as a good male, or the best female, etc. The danger would be that the whole selection process becomes focused around questions of gender and the politics of gender, as opposed to picking a potential team to be socialist tribunes in Holyrood. Gender, of course, should always be a consideration in the selection of such a team, but it should never be imposed as a selection requirement.

d) If it ain't broke don't fix it. In last year's Westminster elections about a third of our candidates were women, roughly the same proportion as are active members of the party. Clearly we would all want to improve these proportions, but it was a good start for our small new party. In the 1999 Holyrood elections the gender balance across the top of the lists was 5 men and 3 women, with a woman second on the list in Glasgow. Thus across our nine target seats for next year's election we had 5 men and 4 women in 1999 without recourse to any prescriptive mechanism. Those of us on this side of the debate have consistently said that our current democratic procedures are quite capable of producing a gender balanced list, particularly with a political campaign from the leading bodies of the party. We have and will continue to argue that it is far better to achieve gender balance for our list candidates on the basis of political discussion and persuasion than it is to achieve it through imposing an organisational mechanism.

There will be some red herrings raised in this debate, not least that, because the Labour Party and some trade unions have moved in this direction, we should follow. Many trade unions have abandoned the class struggle for credit cards and private insurance, yet rightly nobody suggests we follow that example. Nobody is suggesting all of a sudden that privatisation is a good thing. I joined the SSP to buck trends, not follow them.

Another red herring is that there is no alternative. Politics and democracy is one I have suggested above, but the Women's Network passionately argue that we need a selection procedure that will deliver gender balance, no ifs or buts.

Therefore, in the interests of party unity on this important issue, Inverness SSP have produced a compromise procedure which they have put forward as an amendment to the WN motion. It is far from perfect, but it does deliver a gender balanced list of candidates without the hefty overheads implicit in the WN motion..

This motion is outlined below.

Achieving gender balance – an alternative mechanism

A time period be set for July/August 2002 in which all branches will be asked to consider making nominations for their regional seat to a national list. During this period any party member living with a region, or an adjoining region, may put themselves forward for selection for the top of the list for that region.

In the event of more than one candidate coming forward branches will hold hustings and vote, by STV, for who they wish to nominate forward to the national list. Each branch will be entitled to nominate one candidate to be top of the list in their region. Regional Councils will nominate a returning officer to oversee the nomination process and, in addition, are charged by conference to conduct a political campaign to encourage the maximum participation of women candidates in the process.

All candidates securing 25%, or nearest part thereof, of branch nominations within a given region shall be entitled to go forward to a national list as a candidate for selection for top of the list in that region (in most regions 25% will mean 2 or 3 branch nominations).

By early September a National Returning Officer will be appointed by the NC, and a national postal ballot of the membership held. Members will have 8 votes and be required to cast one vote for the candidate they wish to see top of the list in each of the eight regions. All members will be reminded of the party's commitment to gender balance. The ballot paper will state that four votes should be cast for male candidates and four votes for female candidates, thus ensuring a gender balanced outcome, with the membership as a whole determining the composition of the top of the list places across the country. The ballot paper will give the candidates names, details of branch nominations received, which region each candidate is eligible to stand for (candidates may be eligible for more than one region), and contain a short election address of no more than 100 words from each candidate.

The result of the election will be announced by the end of September to allow candidates to begin high profile campaigning in the region for which they have been selected. Regional Councils will then be charged with compiling the remainder of their regional list on a gender balanced basis, taking into account those with second, third and fourth places for given regions in the national ballot, and holding further elections by STV should they be required. Two models will be available for the regions to follow for the regional list as follows


What constitutes a spoiled vote for the purposes of the national membership ballot shall be decided, after consultation with branches, Regional committees and the Women's Network, by either a special meeting of the National Council, or a special Conference on the constitution, should Conference decide to hold one before July.