MSPs supporting 50:50, in aid of the Women’s Aid white ribbon campaign. Image by the author.

  • Editor: Marco Biagi MSP discusses Women 5050, a Scottish campaign for women to have equal representation in the Scottish Parliament.  Although the Scottish Green Party has a policy of genre balancing its candidates the Editors welcome ideas on how other parties, such as Marco’s own SNP, might live up to the campaign’s aspirations. 

Launched in September, Women 50:50 is a campaign supported by individuals across parties united in aiming for a gender balanced Scottish Parliament and accepting that legal mechanisms are needed to do it. This needs Holyrood to gain powers over elections through the Smith Commission process. Supporters of the campaign will take different views on the preferred legal mechanisms, but having already sketched out briefly my views and one possible route, I want to explain this one idea and its advantages in more technical detail.

If Holyrood gains power over elections gender balance will be just one of the issues competing for attention. The first Representation of the People of Scotland Act will likely also deal with voting age, electoral conduct, the voting system and other issues. The SNP’s preferred voting system has always been the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of proportional representation. Committed students of electoral systems can always invent their own ‘perfect’ systems; as an SNP MSP I am seeking to work within the context of what I expect an SNP Government would be seeking to introduce anyway.

Under STV the division of MSPs into two classes – regional and list – would be ended. Instead there would be slightly larger constituencies than at present, and each would elect several members on a proportional basis. Edinburgh, for example, might be divided into two or three constituencies rather than in six at present. The size of the constituencies is a separate debate.

These multi-member constituencies lend themselves better to gender balancing measures than our present single-member type. My proposal is straightforward – paired nomination. In order to nominate candidates in a constituency a party would have to put up a minimum of two candidates, and gender balance those candidates as best as possible. If they chose to run an even number the balance would have to be 50:50 and if an odd number the difference between the genders could be no more than one.

This is an elegant solution. In our current one-member system a 50:50 requirement would require party leaderships to construct elaborate candidate schemes balancing how winnable a seat is with what their local party members would do anyway to the point where they would likely eventually have to commandeer the selection process of local constituencies by dictating to them the gender of their sole candidate. Philosophically I prefer ensuring a balancer alongside rather than a barrier in front of anyone who wishes to put themselves forward.

As every constituency under paired nomination would have to find at least two candidates by law, the role of the central party also becomes one of supporting the grassroots – assisting in recruitment and training of qualified candidates from the under-represented gender. Needing to find those extra candidates for nominations to be valid at all would be an extremely powerful incentive. Parties might start putting as much effort into recruiting candidates as to getting candidates elected. Suddenly we would see a massive increase in female candidacies.

The male and female candidates would also face the electorate on equal terms. Under STV candidates are ranked by the electorate rather than by, as at present on Scottish Parliament lists, parties. As a result it would be much harder to challenge the legitimacy and mandate of the successful female candidates.

It is a strength of STV that voters choose not just between parties but between candidates from those parties. Under STV if a voter supports a party but not one of the candidates they can vote for the other candidate from that party. By ensuring at least two candidates in every constituency every voter would also be guaranteed a choice between candidates from the same party and would not simply have to vote on sufferance for the person presented to them. This could be a powerful incentive to incumbents to work hard and could mean any second-class representatives were naturally cycled out.

This of course is where the cynic sees the incumbent starting to entrench.

What if they select a running (female) mate who is alphabetically below them and thereby at a natural disadvantage? Most parties are unlikely to give an incumbent the choice of their running mate. The system would also have to include randomised ballot order – indeed all Scottish STV should.

What if they choose a deliberately weak running mate? Again – parties will fill their female spaces as they democratically decide. In practice though in Ireland the experience is that all things being equal when female and male candidates are placed alongside each other the female candidates tend to do very slightly better.

What if the parties ask the public to vote for the male candidate and put only his face on all the leaflets, etc? To do so would invite backlash. This could also be addressed in campaign spending limits law. Furthermore, the experience from Scottish local government election is that elaborate vote management strategies like this are often ignored by the public (and sometimes by the candidates).

One last concern that has been expressed is ‘leakiness’. This is a problem where two candidates may split a vote, and due to voters for one not all casting a second preference for the other neither is elected, despite having sufficient support between them to deserve a seat. Small parties in particular might object to this because their tactics sometimes involve the large parties suffering from leakiness while the small parties has a sole candidate that doesn’t. Parties taking advantage of leakiness is as undemocratic as candidates taking advantage of being alphabetically prior. There are ways around that involve diluting the central principle of a minimum of two candidates per constituency – I’m just not convinced that this is a price worth paying.

No system is perfect, whether in elections or anything else. Paired nomination would fit in with the likely electoral reform landscape, massively increase the number of female candidates (and candidates as a whole), and would ensure all women elected could claim a firm mandate from the electorate rather than party machination. At a time when there is a unity behind the principle of Women 50:50, paired nomination is one mechanism whereby that principle could be enacted. I await the emergence of others against which it can be tested.