McConnell: 50% of councillors must be women

By Douglas Fraser
Published June 1st 2003

JACK McConnell faces growing trouble from angered Labour councillors, as he forces local parties to guarantee at least half of their candidate places to women in future council elections. The move, approved by the First Minister, will add to the fury among Labour councillors, overwhelmingly male, who face a major cull as a result of the coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats to introduce proportional voting for councils by the next 2007 elections.

A senior Labour source told the Sunday Herald: 'If we're going to have a fight, we might as well have them all at once. Voting reform gives us a one-off opportunity, the same way the Scottish parliament elections were a one-off chance to force up the number of women we have. The hope is that we do it once or twice, and will not need to do this positive action again.'

Labour councillors have warned of a 'four-year war' over PR, including threats to Labour MSPs that they face de-selection before the next Holyrood election if they back the coalition voting reform deal.

In addition, Labour-run councils threatened late last week to hold simultaneous postal referenda in their areas to test whether there is public support for voting reform. Graham Morrice, leader of Labour-majority West Lothian Council, said those Labour councils against reform had yet to put across the case for the 'beauty and simplicity' of the current, first-past-the-post system.

The new system will have larger council wards, represented by either four councillors in urban areas or three in rural Scotland. Lesley Quinn, Scottish Labour's general secretary, is to outline to the party's executive later this month her plan for women to be guaranteed at least two of the candidate berths in the four-member wards, and at least one in the three-member wards. Voters will be able to choose from any of the names on the Labour or other party lists, in order of preference and without being limited to any one party.

The principle of a Labour's gender balance policy was approved in a document the party executive passed earlier this year, but it is thought not many of those involved realised what this would mean for male-dominated councillors, already fearful they are to lose their seats to opposition parties.

Following the 1999 election, only 22% of all councillors were women. Labour then won 551 out of 1,222 wards, but that fell to 509 seats in last month's elections. Only five of the 32 newly-elected council leaders are women.

Labour's move follows one before the 1999 Scottish parliament election to twin seats, so that pairs of equally winnable constituencies had a man and a woman standing in them. That led to equal numbers within the Labour group in the first parliament. And because male MSPs suffered disproportionately from Labour's losses last month, there are now 28 female MSPs out of a Labour group of 50.

The final, revised map of Scottish constituencies, following several public hearings last year, is going before the Boundaries Commission tomorrow[Mon], with publication likely within a few weeks. Although further requests for changes can be made, the imminent publication is likely to be the point at which candidacy battles commence.

A further problem facing incumbent councillors worried about losing their positions is that the Kerley Report, which was commissioned by the Executive and recommended the STV system for councils, also suggested the total number of councillors in Scotland be cut by as many as 200. It is yet to be decided if that reduction will be implemented in the local governance bill which McConnell announced last week will be tabled in the coming parliamentary year.