The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Achieving gender balance in an Independent Scottish Parliament


How it can be done, and why it should be done.

Liz Walker of Women for Independence and Radical Independence Inverness, and Steve Arnott, co-ordinating Editor of The Point, argue that progressives in Scotland should begin preparing now to take the case for a 50-50 gender balance in the Scottish Parliament to the post-independence Constitutional Convention.


The drive and desire for social, civic, legal and economic equality lies at the very heart of socialism; at the very centre of progressive thought.

While there is no room for complacency, and while much remains to be done, it would be self-defeating not to recognise that there has been a qualitative change in public perception and public support for many issues of equality over the previous generation – the recent public support for and passing of legislation enabling same sex marriage is just one striking example (but not the only one) of what can be achieved.  The traction gained by Brian Soutar’s campaign against the abolition of Section 28, the Tory gag on teaching about homosexuality in schools, in the early life of the first Scottish Parliament seems to belong to a different era in comparison – yet it was scarcely over a decade ago.

It is this progressive momentum that drives much of the support from the left for independence. After the dark and difficult decades of Thatcherism and Blairism, and no hope offered from interminable austerity and neo-liberal ideology from Westminster, there is a real belief, without getting carried away and seeing socialist nirvanas just around the corner, that real progressive changes could be made in an independent Scotland.  This stems from an understanding of the centre of political gravity and consensus that exists in Scotland, and how it can be nudged leftwards with the right kind of organisation and campaigning, and a grasp of how the newness, openness and excitement of independence will inspire a generation.

Having set that context, in this particular article we want to argue that one facet of equality – gender equality - can be hugely enhanced by sending a clear signal from Government, Parliament and the new written constitution of an independent Scotland: that from the earliest date possible, which would be the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2020, the Scottish Parliament can have and should have a 50-50 gender balance of MSP’s.

We want to show that enshrining equal gender representation in the Legislature at the outset of Scottish Independence, with the constitutional blank slate that a YES vote offers, can be straightforward, simple and fair – and that it can avoid some of the democratic overheads that some forms of positive discrimination – such as quotas or pre-selection, imply.


Building on ‘Scotland’s Future’


The SNP have already made a number of commitments to improve the civic and socio-economic status of women in an independent Scotland.  Socialists, Greens and progressives need to push at that opened door and move the debate forward in more radical, bolder terms.

At the centre of the Scottish Government’s strategy is the commitment to transformational, free childcare of up to 30 hours a week, removing a huge financial burden from many working families and enabling both women and men with childcare responsibilities to get into work. There is a reasonable expectation that the principle beneficiaries of such a policy will be working-class women, and there is broad support for this measure and the principles behind it across the spectrum.

On the reflection and representation of women in society, there is less clout and clarity, however.  Quoting Scotland’s Future:

“In an independent Scotland we will ensure that Scotland’s institutions have equality and diversity at the heart of their governance. We will expect to see public and private institutions working to improve the diversity and gender balance of their governance. We will also consult on a target for women’s representation on company and public boards and, if necessary, we will legislate as appropriate.”

To be fair, the SNP have subsequently developed this position somewhat. At their spring conference just past they put a figure on their target for women’s representation company and public boards of 40%, and introduced two more women into the Scottish Cabinet to raise its percentage of female members to that level.  Alex Salmond said at the time of the announcement that this was intended to show that the Scottish Government would ‘lead from the front’ on this issue.

Now all of this is welcome – but jings, michty me, help our constitutional boab – can we not be a bit more radical than that?

Leading from the front and sending a signal to wider society is, of course, very important.  On a written constitution ‘Scotland’s Future’ says this:

The process by which Scotland adopts a written constitution is as important as its content. In developing a new written constitution, Scotland will be able to learn from the innovative and participative approaches of other countries.

The process of agreeing and enacting the constitution should ensure that it reflects the fundamental constitutional principle that the people, rather than politicians or state institutions, are the sovereign authority in Scotland. The Scottish Government proposes that the newly elected independent Scottish Parliament in May 2016 should convene a Constitutional Convention to draft the written constitution.”

We’ll come back to the Constitutional Convention later, but note the welcome use of the words ‘innovative’, and ‘participative’.  Also note ‘the fundamental constitutional principle that the people, rather than politicians or state institutions, are the sovereign authority.’

Now given that half of the people are women (actually the figure is closer to 52% because women tend to live slightly longer), and that women continue to be severely under-represented in both the current constitutional set-up and the current Scottish Parliament, why not take an ‘innovative’ and ‘participative’ approach and enshrine in our future constitution that the people’s Legislature in an independent Scotland should be wholly reflective of the people that elect it, beginning with a 50-50 gender balance of MSP’s?

Of course, there are other issues of equality and representation apart from gender – such as class, disability, sexual orientation, occupation (why are there so few engineers and scientists in Parliament?).  But it is our contention that the most fundamental imbalance that can be most easily resolved under independence is that of gender.



‘Scotland’s Future’ also talks about learning from other countries. The Scandinavian countries in particular have qualitatively better records on women’s participation in politics and gender balance in their Parliaments. The methods by which this has been achieved by and large have evolved piecemeal over time, however, and tend to be a mixture of quotas and complex electoral mechanisms.

An independent Scotland, starting with a blank slate, and through the proposed Constitutional Convention, could achieve gender balance through a simple democratic and non-discriminatory electoral principle enshrined in law - which we will come to in a moment.

But for now, just imagine if that were to be achieved at the outset of independence. Imagine the confidence and lift it would give to women in an independent Scotland by the example it set. Imagine the example it would set to other countries and to women across the world. Indeed, imagine the effect that such a bold and unequivocal commitment now could have on women voters in the forthcoming referendum?

We hope that has convinced you of the ‘why?’ (although we also hope you didn’t take that much convincing).  Now to convince you of the ‘how?’.

The method we propose to achieve 50-50 gender balance in an independent Scottish Parliament we have chosen to call Constitutional Electoral Pairing, or CEP.


What is Constitutional Electoral Pairing, and how does it work?


Constitutional electoral pairing (CEP) is not a difficult concept – once its essential simplicity and elegance is grasped.  To borrow from the old Ronseal advert  ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’.

Constitutionally, political parties and independents would be obliged to put forward a gender paired candidacy – one man, one woman - for every electoral place they wish to contest. No exceptions.  Every vote cast is cast for a gender paired candidacy automatically, and two seats in the parliament are filled by a gender paired candidacy for every electoral place contested.

In a Scottish context, assuming no change in the rest of the Parliamentary electoral system, this would mean the same number of votes being cast for each of the 72 constituencies as now, but with two gender paired candidates taking up two seats in the Parliament by the current first past the post system.  For example, a constituency ballot paper for ‘Burnington Central’ or ‘Shieldinch’ might look something like this (except with boxes, obviously):


CONSERVATIVE                               Ruth Davidson/David Mundell

INDEPENDENT                                  Wee Shug/'Landless' Lady Sutherland

LABOUR                                              Ian Davidson/Joanne Lamont

LIBERAL DEMOCRAT                      Willie Rennie/Wilhelmina Rennie

RED/GREEN ALLIANCE                   Steve Arnott/Liz Walker                     X

SCOTTISH NATIONAL PARTY        Joan McAlpine/Angus Brendan McNeill

UKIP (deceased)                                 Nigel Farage/Ms. Georgina Galloway


Setting aside the ‘wee bit fun’ we hope this is reasonably clear, so far. You vote as now on your constituency ballot paper and the party (or independent) who gets the most votes, as now, wins the seat – and sends their gender paired candidacy to the Scottish Parliament.

The same basic principle applies to the list ballot for each of the eight regions. Nothing changes from now except every electoral place contested must have a gender paired candidacy. So for instance, in Region A the Greens want to stand for three places on the list, they provide three paired candidacies on their list, in order of preference, first, second, third, just like now.  

Big parties will probably want to contest all seven list places across all eight regions, same as now. No problem – but they do so with gender paired candidates.  Seven ‘electoral places’ are up for grabs on each regional list on the same basis as now, but 14 MSP’s – the winning seven gender paired candidacies – are sent to the Parliament.

How do parties select their paired candidacies?

That’ll be up to the internal constitution or arrangements of each political party. You would hope that in most parties the man and woman who win smost members’ votes would be the man and woman who would contest that particular electoral place for their party – but the law and the constitution would be clear: to stand for any electoral place in the Scottish Parliament you must put forward a gender paired candidacy. This is why the earliest a measure like this could be brought in would be the second elections to the Scottish Parliament after independence in 2020 – because it will first have to be agreed by the Constitutional Convention and then legislated for by the Parliament of 2016-2020.



Not Yet Frequently Asked Questions That Are Probably Going to Become Frequently Asked Questions.


Er, doesn’t that double the number of MSP’s in an indy Scotland?  Surely a lot of extra money to spend on getting a 50-50 balance of men and women in the Parliament?


Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that it does mean doubling the number of MSP’s on the current constituency and additional member model from 128 (65 a majority) to 256 (129 a majority). Whether that would be worth it to ensure gender balance would be an argument for some people. We firmly believe the historical, experiential and democratic gain of 50-50 representation would be worth the price, but of course, ensuring gender balance is not the only reason we will need to increase the size of the Parliament after independence.

So, no, in the sense that the size of the Parliament will have to increase anyway. The Parliament will have all of the legislative responsibilities currently reserved to Westminster – taxation, welfare, energy, defence, foreign affairs. It will have more than twice the legislative workload and that legislation will require more than twice as much scrutiny in committee. Add to that that the whole constituency workload of current Scottish Westminster MP’s will come to the Scottish Parliament and a doubling of the legislative workforce does not suddenly seem so unreasonable.  Our point is this: if the number of MSP’s is going to have to increase anyway, why not do it in such a way, through CEP, that gives us a Parliament that genuinely reflects the gender balance of the people it represents.


That’s going to mean some expensive building work, isn’t it?

Yes. The debating chamber of the parliament will have to be expanded and a new annexe found or built for new MSP's rooms and committes. But again, this is going to have to happen anyway. And remember this is the youtfhful days of a new and better nation we're talking about here. As Jock says to Indiana Jones when he finds a snake in the plane - 'show a little backbone, wil ya!'


So does this CEP system only work with the current electoral system?


Not at all.  We used the current electoral system because there doesn’t appear to be any plans to change it in the near future and, of course, it’s familiar to political activists in Scotland. But CEP could work in theory with any electoral system.  So, if the Constitutional Convention that is proposed drew the conclusion it wanted to amend or change the current electoral set-up; whether they go for straight proportional representation, Single Transferable Vote, or an enhanced additional member system then Constitutional Electoral Pairing will work just as well to ensure a  50-50 gender balance in the Parliament.

As an aside, one thing we think the left should work hard to avoid ,once independence is won and the Constitutional Convention is on the horizon, is any attempt by the big parties to bring in a Single Transferable Vote system  with small constituencies. That would largely preclude the smaller parties through sheer electoral arithmetic, as they have done with the council elections.  A rainbow Parliament, a representative Parliament, should ensure that smaller parties and independents can be elected with around 5% of the vote – at the very least.


But this is political apartheid isn’t it? Women representing women and women’s issues and men representing everything else.


Absolutely not, and we would wish to be crystal clear about that.  We reject he idea that there is a discrete set of ‘women’s issues’ – like childcare or domestic violence, for instance - that only women should be interested in.  The notion that women are only principally interested in those issues, but not, say, the removal of Trident, or the privatisation of the Royal Mail ,is anathema to us. There are no gender dividing lines when it comes to politics – women and men together should take in an interest in every issue because every issue affects us all as human beings.

The point of having a gender balanced Parliament in an independent Scotland is that it will reflect the reality of the population it serves.  It will reflect the experience of the people it serves – and women’s experience can be different from the experience of men.  But a gender balanced pair elected to a constituency will both represent everyone in that constituency – as is the case now.  Similarly, a gender pair elected on the list will represent all the voters for the party whose banner they stood under. All constituents will be politically represented by both elements of the gender pair.


Hmm, ok, but hasn’t there been a bit of a Damascene conversion here? Wasn’t one of the authors of this paper a firm and leading opponent of 50-50 gender balance in the SSP back in the day?


That’ll be me, then. (S. Arnott holds up hand and waves cheerily). No damascene conversion really. That 50/50 debate was about an internal party selection system and those opposing it (in the main) were not opposed to the principle of 50/50 representation but to the particular mechanism that was being proposed at the time which was considered by many to have some hefty democratic overheads.

But that was a debate then, this is a discussion now, and we would argue that the beauty of CEP is that it is an entirely non-discriminatory system. No-one would be excluded from any constituency or regional list on the grounds of their gender. Both talented women and talented men would be able put themselves forward for selection and election, and the only criteria would be whether enough of their own party members voted for them in the first instance, and whether sufficient numbers of the electorate voted for them in the second.




There will be those who say that this is not the time to raising such questions, that the first priority must be to win the referendum itself.

No-one disagrees that the first priority is to win a YES vote on September 18th.  Every other hope and dream we have is predicated on that. Similarly no-one would deny that these are ultimately matters for the proposed Constitutional Convention.

However, raising the sights about what becomes possible with independence, that ‘Another Scotland’ radical independence speaks of and to, can inspire people and drive the campaign forward. Raising 50-50 and CEP now allows the wider movement to discuss it, and develop the idea for the debates and discussions to come when the referendum is won.

Between us we have road tested this idea now at a number of meetings where one or another of us has been invited to speak. The response from both women and men to the idea has generally been very positive, and sometimes downright enthusiastic.

We would hope that a wide range of people would now get involved in discussing and evaluating this proposal, from Women for Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign, from members of the big two in Scotland – the SNP and Labour, to the smaller socialist parties and the Greens. This idea should now become the property of our YES movement as a whole.

Like independence itself, we believe this is an idea whose time has come.



LIz Walker, Steve Arnott 26.04.14



External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Viridis Lumen