Devolution Is a Feminist Issue

By Wilkinson, Helen | New Statesman (1996), December 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Devolution Is a Feminist Issue


Wilkinson, Helen, New Statesman (1996)


In Scotland and Wales, women have made a real difference, reports Helen Wilkinson

When the history books are written, 1999 may prove to be more of a political watershed than 1997: because this has been the year not only of devolution but also of feminism. And the two are connected.

If 1997 registered high on the Richter scale for the "political genderquake", as new Labour boasted 101 women MPs, 1999 came close to going off the chart. Blair's babes were suddenly joined by a new army of femocrats, nicknamed Dewar's dollies and Michael's molls by the Scottish and Welsh media. In the Scottish Parliament 38 per cent of the members are women, in the Welsh Assembly 40 per cent -- compared to just 18 per cent in the House of Commons. Both countries are now among the highest in the world for women's representation, and there are more Labour women in the Welsh Assembly than Labour men.

Devolution, in other words, is a feminist issue. Baroness (Patricia) Hollis, parliamentary undersecretary for social security and a historian, has long argued that the way to get more women into politics is to bring democracy closer to local communities, and quotes the improbable representation of women on Norfolk County Council back at the beginning of the century in support. Historically, women have been involved in community action, often finding the practicalities of local politics more relevant than the grander, more impersonal abstractions of national politics.

The Fawcett Society, which campaigns for gender equality, has just published a report on the lessons of Scotland and Wales. It praises the policy of twinning, whereby two constituency parties jointly selected two candidates from a shortlist -- one man and one woman -- and then allocated one to fight each seat. This was more successful than Labour's policy, now abandoned, of drawing up all-women shortlists in selected constituencies in 1997.

But this is not the only lesson. The Scottish Labour Party discussed achieving gender balance within the Scottish Parliament as far back as 1991. The party did the groundwork to minimise resistance. In Wales, the decision to twin came so late that the debate over its pros and cons was taking place in constituency parties while selection ballots were being held. The fallout from this rancour is still being felt. As a Welsh woman quoted in the Fawcett Society's report recalled: "I received two anonymous poison-pen letters ... someone cut out bits of newspaper and sent them to me." The macho culture of the Labour Party in Wales -- working men's clubs, rugby union, male voice choirs and the rest of it -- is notorious.

Yet in Wales the genderquake, in some respects, came early because of the steep decline of industries -- notably steel in the north and mining in the south -- that had traditionally employed the male working class. As a child growing up in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s, I remember walking past the working men's club on my way into town. …

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