Can we break free of male, pale and stale politics?

Can we break free of male, pale and stale politics?

Kirstein Rummery (University of Stirling)


On the 18th September 2014, 88% of Scottish voters turned out to vote in the referendum on Scottish independence. A historic 45% of them voted for independence, and of those who voted ‘no’, over 25% did so in the expectation that further powers would be devolved to Scotland. There was clearly a large appetite for removing power from Westminster and placing it in Scottish hands. Although the No vote was clear, the campaign for further devolution and constitutional change has not gone away. The Smith Commission recommended that disability benefits and the ability to vary income tax be devolved to the Scottish Parliament – giving it considerable power to reshape at least part of its welfare policies. It was a necessary compromise to get all five of the main parties in Scotland and Westminster to agree – but it fell far short of the ‘Home Rule’ or ‘Devo Max’ that many felt should follow a No vote.

The Labour party took the lead in the Better Together campaign, and the television coverage of the debate was dominated by the SNP leader and First Minister Alex Salmond versus Alistair Darling, a senior member of the Labour Party with Gordon Brown (the ex-Prime Minister and also Labour) weighing in in the later stages particularly when it looked like support for independence would be far higher than its average historic level of around 20%. What was noteable from the debate was that it revealed how very ‘male, pale and stale’ – and out of touch with Scottish political sensibilities – both the Westminster political elite, and the London-based media were. The Better Together campaign advert targeted at undecided women voters epitomised how out of touch politics and political campaigning seemed to be.

The real debates that energised Scotland politically took place away from the TV screens and newspapers dominated by establishment voices. Grassroots movements like Women for Independence and Radical Independence, and coalitions of the Green party, socialists, feminists, disability rights campaigners and other civic organisations all campaigned for independence, and continue to do so. Within mainstream political parties, a huge swing in membership from the Labour party to the SNP came in part from women, improving their gender balance from 33% to 44% women. When Nicola Sturgeon took over as First Minister following Alex Salmond’s resignation, one of her first acts was to put in place the first 50/50 gender equal Cabinet seen since the inception of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Despite this, academic researchers and the Electoral Reform Society are warning against seeing women’s increased politicisation as resulting in a ‘gender-quake’ in politics: the UK is currently 56th in the world league tables on women’s representation in politics, and the forthcoming general election is not likely to make a significant difference to this position. None of the UK parties support positive measures (such as quotas) to encourage women’s political participation. Overall Labour are fielding the largest number of women candidates (212 – 34%) – which still lags behind the SNP’s 36%. The Greens are fielding 176 women candidates giving them the highest percentage (37%), with Conservatives (152 – 25%), Plaid Cymru (10 – 26%) with the Liberal Democrats (212 – 34%) close behind. Only UKIP fails to approach the 25% mark, fielding only 65 (13%) women candidates.

At the time of writing many pollsters were predicting a ‘hung’ parliament at Westminster in the 2015 general election, with the possibility that the ‘fringe’ parties, particularly the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, might either hold the balance of power in a coalition government, or be seen as allies supporting a minority government to push through key policies. It is therefore worth examining what distinguishes these parties from the ‘Big Three’ of the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats who currently dominate Westminster.

First, all three parties are experienced at working within Coalition governments, at both local and regional/national level: the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament use proportional representation rather than first past the post system, and this encourages a multiplicity of parties to work in Coalition, and for smaller parties to work together around issues to pass legislation. For example it is only since 2007 that the SNP have held an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, and even then it relies on strategic alliances around devolved policy issues (for example public health issues like the smoking ban) to pass legislation.

Secondly, both the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament employ more systematic and sustained participatory styles of governance than Westminster. For example, many activists involved in the Equalities sector in Scotland welcomed the pro-independence campaign’s stance on justice and equalities forming part of an independent Scotland’s constitution, and the policy promises around welfare, childcare, nuclear disarmament and welfare policies. Recent examples of co-operative policy making include legislation to allow disabled people to take charge of their own care services in the form of self-directed support (with service providers, disability rights and carers organisations) and domestic violence legislation (with police authorities, Scottish Women’s Aid and women’s groups). Although the legislation that ensues does not always reflect the concerns of activists, it suggests that a focussed ‘policy community’ that allows different groups of people to feel that their voices are ‘heard’ in the political process. The more rigid party structures at Westminster, coupled with the fact that the political networks are dominated by public school educated elites, means a much narrower range of ‘voices’ form part of the policy process.

Thirdly, the neo-liberal consensus on welfare austerity (to cut public sector spending to reduce deficits, with the accompanying use of welfare sanctions) since 2008 has had the effect of widening inequalities considerably. The poorest tenth of the population are bearing the brunt of austerity measures, seeing a 38 per cent decrease in their net income over the period 2010-15, with the richest tenth seeing only a 5 per cent fall in their income. Both real and absolute poverty have risen dramatically, reversing the progress made on tackling child poverty under the Labour administration of 1997-2010. Moreover, despite a legal challenge from the Fawcett society that they were ignoring their statutory duty to have due regard to the equalities impact of their spending decisions women are suffering particularly from the austerity measures due to their overrepresentation in the public sector workforce, thus seeing reduced wages, pensions and jobs from public sector spending cuts; they are the highest users of social care, health, childcare and other welfare services that are seeing reductions in services; and as the vast majority of full-time carers of children, disabled people and older people are women, they will disproportionately step in to cover the withdrawal of social rights, with a huge impact on their own independence, job prospects, financial security and wellbeing. The UK Women’s Budget Group, the Scottish Women’s Budget Group and academic commentators (1) all caution that this disproportionate burden will have a long lasting effect on women’s economic autonomy and equality. As austerity policies have plunged the UK into recession, causing economic stagnation, and as the health and social impact of welfare reductions and sanctions have been severe (and borne by women, disabled people and children disproportionately) it is clear that in the interests of social justice and equality that an alternative vision is needed. At present, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens are the only parties offering credible alternatives to the neo-liberal ‘austerity’ hegemony: their alternative social and economic visions are sorely needed.

Finally, it is no coincidence that the fringe parties are led by women. Ever since the first woman was elected to the UK parliament – Constance Marckievicz, a suffragette and socialist elected for Sinn Fein in December 1918 who later become one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position as Minister for Labour of the Irish Republic 1919-1922 – women have been at the forefront of radicalising politics. In 1999 a new space opened up for women’s political representation in Scotland, and women’s participation in the Scottish Parliament has always been higher than at Westminster. At the moment the Scottish Parliament has 45 women MSPs (out of 129 = 35%) and Westminster has 147 women MPs (out of 650 = 23%). This is mostly to do with the fact that the two largest parties in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP and Labour, have 17 and 18 women MSPs respectively. Before the Scottish First Minister’s historic gender balanced 50/50 cabinet, the Scottish Cabinet had 4 (out of 11) female Cabinet Secretaries, and 5 female junior ministers (out of 13). The Coalition cabinet at Westminster, following the 14th July reshuffle now has 5 women cabinet ministers out of 27 (in the previous cabinet there were four women out of 27). Moreover, there are more high profile women in the Scottish Parliament (e.g. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, Kezia Dugdale, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour party) who attract and mentor other female politicians, which is a demonstrated way of getting more women into Parliament, than there are at Westminster, where the leaders of all three main parties are not only male, but publically educated elite white men.

So, in both political and policy terms, it might be time for the ‘male, pale stale’ elite at Westminster to give way to women who might possibly be bringing the biggest upset to politics since the suffragettes. Or come election night and the years thereafter, will we be seeing the same faces and same policies failing to revitalise politics and democracy the way the Scottish referendum on independence might do in Scotland?

(1) Pearson, R and Elson D (2015) Transcending the Impact of the Financial Crisis in the United Kingdom: Towards plan F – a feminist economic strategy, Feminist Review, 109 8:30


Kirstein Rummery is Professor of Social Policy, University of Stirling, where she is the Co-Director of the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies. She is a Senior Fellow at the Centre on Constitutional Change, and a member of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group. She has research interests in gender and disability policies, governance and health and social care. She is currently carrying out comparative research on gender equality and care policies, and the effect the Scottish referendum on independence has had on women’s political participation.