I have to confess that one event from the weekend’s conference did give me pause, and made my heart flicker as though clutched by a cold hand of chilling fear…much as when I watched Darling attacking Salmond over the currency in the first televised debate last year. (An ‘actual’ debate – not two leaders being interviewed separately by Jeremy Paxman, as we saw last week between Miliband and ‘I don’t do debates’ Cameron…)
It was, as far as I can tell, the only real source of dissent over the weekend. Of course, members of political parties generally like to say that things went swimmingly well at their conferences, regardless of what actually happened. On the other hand, in past years, the SNP conferences have been applauded as unusual in the UK, because policies are actually discussed, and not dictated by the executive in advance, as with the Westminster parties – a particular example of this was over NATO membership, when Salmond knew he had to argue for it against the wishes of many members, in order to present as seamless a transition for the Referendum electorate as possible. He won the day – but it was far from certain that he would.
The tense issue over the weekend was about All-Women Shortlists (AWS) – positive discrimination in order to achieve gender equality – specifically, the option to have all female shortlists for candidate selection.
And there are certainly arguments for it. Committed to gender equality as Nicola’s government and party is, with a gender equal cabinet, of the 64 SNP MSPs there are nonetheless only 17 women. And yet, with their new membership surge, an impressive 44% of the party are now female (before the Referendum, it was 33%, so this is a significant move towards representing the actual population figure of 52%). So all female shortlists were proposed…except, of course, positive discrimination is not everyone’s flavour of feminism.
As I said, I cannot deny a chill went through my heart on Monday when I saw someone online declaring that they had resigned their new SNP membership over it, as someone who had joined and become a hard-working activist after the Referendum. It made me realise just how divisive the issue is – and the massive potential consequences. It may be sexist, but to be politically active as a woman in this day and age takes (to my perhaps blinkered eyes) more political savvy and strength than to do it as a man. It implies that you are likely to have made political decisions about your gender role in society, which is pretty unnecessary as a male. Therefore, with 44% of politically motivated females, I really feared how much fallout there might be from this.
That big electronic sign above Nicola’s head during her speech, which announced the new membership numbers of 102,143 – I wondered how much it might have started counting down again, just on the basis of Nicola’s decision, and that policy…
And I think it is not unfair to describe it in those terms – allegedly this proposal was coming down very heavily from her, and she wanted it passed. The member who resigned from the party said that although she was told she would get to speak, she did not – and felt offended at the implication that she needed some kind of legislative protection to stand and succeed, when Nicola, Angela, Shona and Eilidh did not – that she was somehow ‘less’ than them. The fact that the policy was only on a trial basis for a year, and would need to be renewed by conference after review next spring, did not make any difference.
This horrible fear rose up in me as I read this – of the SNP throwing everything away with the positive discrimination lists option, to risk fragmenting the party, losing that enthusiasm and key support, just 5 weeks before the most important general election in the history of the SNP. After my statement less than a week ago that I was confident of her ability to deal with victory and loss and present it well to the electorate, was this Nicola’s critical misstep? Will the SNP be shedding membership by the tonne in the 5 weeks leading up to the vote, before they even have time to use that legion of ‘boots on the ground’ so envied by Scottish Labour?
And – that was what made it even worse: it would FINALLY give Labour something real to attack them on, as opposed to getting Eleanor Bradford to misrepresent the health service out of context every week on BBC Scotland for her ‘New Labour’ chums. Such an attack by Labour would be grossly hypocritical, of course, because Labour had done exactly the same thing, introducing female only shortlists at conference in 1993 (the LibDems rejected such a move in 2001, and Cameron has expressed support for the policy) – but that hypocrisy has recently become par for the course with Scottish Labour’s new leader, and his Janus-like 24 hour rotations of policy. It has also been alleged that Labour lost a safe seat in Blaenau Gwent in 2005 over the introduction of AWS, so there are clearly risks in terms of a possible backlash.
The all-women shortlists were criticised at the conference – but 9 all male shortlists (not created through policy, I hasten to add) passed through conference with barely any comment.
And then I think of the rampant sexism being applied against Nicola through the media in the past two weeks – the Miley Cyrus wrecking ball mock up on the front page of The (English release only version of The) Sun, retiring Labour MP David Hamilton referring to her at their conference as “the wee lass with the tin hat on”, picked up with unseemly haste in Steve Bell’s Guardian cartoon, indicating that all the SNP were interested in were incest and country dancing (see original quote from Thomas Beecham).
Clearly, this is unacceptable. Maybe this move IS important to show consistency in her policies across the board. Perhaps – as with those SNP members that resigned over NATO – there will only be a handful that go, and not too significant a dent. Perhaps one blogger’s observation over the weekend, is absolutely correct: “Things won’t start to happen in a way that views women as equal partners in business or politics until there are more women in there making sure they do.”
But, as I said before, 44% of the membership is now women – how will they react? Will the numbers meltdown?
I wait with heart in mouth. I guess I just have to trust Nicola, and hope that she is right. Under her leadership, a Survation poll on the 20th March on who would best represent Scotland’s interests, gave a clear endorsement of where the public thinks she is right now with the party: 17.9% thought Labour [a mere 51.5% of Labour 2010 voters], 45.6% said the SNP [including 19.7% of No voters, and a third of Labour 2010 voters], 10.6% said Conservatives and an optimistic 3.6% thought the LibDems. Her leadership ratings are +33, whilst Murphy dives down to -25, with Cameron -36, Miliband -53 and Clegg a not-so-stellar -70.
In which case, rather than her, maybe it will be Labour that will need the ‘tin hats’ to endure the switch in their fortunes – despite the SNP following their progressive policy on positive discrimination for all female shortlists. Let’s see, shall we?
“this is certainly the largest-ever political conference to be held in Scotland since Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders occupied Edinburgh. Better still, it could even be the largest-ever party gathering – in terms of official branch delegates – ever seen in the United Kingdom.” (George Kerevan, 29/3/2015)