As the arguments over women’s representation in public and political life are rehearsed again during the parliamentary scrutiny of the Scotland Bill, it may be appropriate to reflect on the wider political context. When looking back to the early days of the campaign for the Scottish Assembly, subsequently Scottish Parliament, we should remember how women’s voices played a key role in shaping that new institution in 1999.
The Scottish Constitutional Convention of the 1980s had a Women’s Issues sub group, convened by Maria Fyfe MP, with trade union and civic organisation representation. Yvonne Strachan Transport and General Workers Union, and STUC Women’s Committee, brought a strong voice for trade union women and wider working class involvement. Submissions to the Women’s Issues Group contained a range of ideas for changing the face of Scottish political representation, and the Reports from the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989, in 1990, and in 1995, all made clear that the working structures and patterns of a Scottish Parliament should positively encourage the involvement of women, ethnic and other minority groups.
The STUC Women’s Committee triggered a wide discussion with its very straightforward proposal that 50% of the elected representatives should be men and 50% should be women. This was tied to the idea that the new parliament would have two representatives for each constituency, a proposal which had emanated from the Kilbrandon Commission. The STUC Women’s Committee took this, and specified one male and one female, drawn from two lists in each constituency.
As the campaign around 50/50 grew, the trade unions also took their proposal to the political parties, and in 1990 the Scottish Labour Party adopted support for the 50/50 approach. The arguments at that time included the preferred format of the Parliament and the voting system to be used, whether First past the Post or some form of proportional representation. This had been resolved by 1997, when the UK General Election returned a Labour Government, and the Scotland Act was subsequently passed, to set up the Scottish Parliament. As we know, the suggestion on two member constituencies was not adopted, although the combination of first past the post and the list system does give every citizen in Scotland more than one representative, and some of the political parties continue to try to devise ways of using the electoral system to increase women’s representation.
The STUC Women’s Committee, and all those campaigning for women’s voices to be heard, shaped those early days of the Scottish Parliament, and the legacy is still here today.
However, looking outwards at the wider political agenda, we should remember we do not campaign in a political vacuum. The Conservative Government today seeks to significantly limit the role of trade unions both in the workplace and in wider civic society. The Trade Union Bill currently being rushed through the Westminster Parliament, will restrict the most basic rights to organise collectively, and will inhibit much of the progress made through workplace representation, on equality, on health and safety, and on pay, terms and conditions.
This should be of concern to us all, and it is not simply an attack on trade unions. The restrictions proposed on the Political Funds of trade unions will mean it is increasingly difficult for trade unions and their members to campaign in the political arena, be that on wages and decent work, or on women’s representation such as the 50:50 campaign. The basis for this has already been laid in the Transparency of Lobbying Act, Non Party Campaigning, and Trade Union Administration 2014,
which requires additional registration procedures for third party organisations when campaigning in the run up to Elections.
The media may portray this as being concerned with trade union links with the Labour Party, but make no mistake, it is about far more than that. Without those legitimate union political funds, trade union women and men will lose their voice on social and economic policy – and the 50/50 campaign all those years ago, led so effectively by the trade unions, would not have been possible.
So, please add your voice now to the growing opposition to the Trade Union Bill at Westminster, as it will do nothing to strengthen women’s voices in the workplace or in wider society, in fact, quite the opposite.