Welsh womankind’s giant step

Owain ap Gareth says that unless positive action resumes we can expect far fewer women in the Assembly in future

Following the 2003 National Assembly elections, much ink was spilt in Wales being a world leader in the representation. As the then First Minister Rhodri Morgan put it:

“We understand that it is the only legislature in the world that is perfectly balanced between men and women. We should note that. It is a message that should ring around the world. We are proud of that fact, we have every right to be proud of it, and the people of Wales have every right to be proud of having set that new world record.”

This in turn led to gender parity in the Cabinet. Rhodri Morgan referred to women’s representation at the highest decision-making level as “a small step for the cabinet, but a giant leap for Welsh womankind’.

But that balance has now gone, so over the next few weeks, the  CountingWomenIn coalition (Merched yn Cyfrif) will begin working with politicians, civil society and citizens to promote gender representation. It aims to persuade the parties to improve their processes in selecting women, to urge positive action for gender equality, and encourage excluded people to stand for election.

In Wales we are also working with WENWales, the Women’s Equality Network Wales. We have published a survey to try and find out more about why women find it hard to get selected within their parties.

Women were at the forefront in the creation of family friendly hours for the National Assembly and its Standing Orders that ban the use of sexist language. These have made it possible for staff and AMs from a wider cross-section of society to work in politics in Wales. Women have changed the parameters of debate. Issues such as domestic violence and equal pay have been given far great prominence due to the presence of women AMs. The presence of women has also freed men in the Assembly from the macho posturing that is so characteristic of Westminster.

There is considerable evidence that female candidates do as well as male candidates when directly facing the voters. The lack of women politicians is the result of voters not being given the opportunity to vote for women candidates. However,  election through gaining the vote of the people is in fact only the final hurdle facing aspiring women politicians. There are two other hurdles to jump in order to get elected

The first is putting one’s self up for selection. Historically, various reasons women have been less likely to put themselves forward for selections. Some of these reasons are socio-economic. Research by the Fawcett society identified the four ‘C’s – childcare, cash, confidence and culture – as the main barriers to women putting themselves forward for selection. The second is that the selection itself can be biased in favour of men.

So Rhodri Morgan’s point that as Welsh people we set a new record is true insofar as we are as likely to elect women as men. However, the real heavy-lifting was breaking through the glass ceiling of the party machines in have women candidates selected to be put in front of the people in the first place. This has been the basis of gender parity in the Assembly.

In particular, Labour’s positive action was key in ensuring fairer representation at the Assembly, with Plaid Cymru’s commitment to positive action in list seats also having an effect. Following an abject record in the first three elections, the Welsh Conservatives now have a more acceptable return of four women AMs. The Lib Dems’ gender parity has always seemed more luck than design. It is only through a minor miracle – and the expulsion of one male AM – that they returned more than one woman AM in this year’s May election.

A look at the Westminster record also confirms the vital part party selection policies play in getting women elected. Only 13 women have ever been elected as MPs in Wales, 7 of whom have been selected through positive action by the Labour party. Neither the Conservatives nor Plaid Cymru have ever had a female MP. County council elections illustrate further how much needs to be done. At this level only 25 per cent of councillors are female, fewer than  England’s 31 per cent. Only five per cent of Council Leaders in Wales are female.

Following both Labour and Plaid Cymru’s recent retreat in positive action policies in the Assembly, there is little place for complacency. While the headline figure of women constituting 42 per cent of AMs is healthy, underlying trends show that this figure remains high largely due to the incumbents from the positive action for the 2003 election. Only eight of 23 of new AMs this year were women – and that figure would have been seven had not the Liberal Democrat’s John Dixon ben forced to stand down due to electoral irregularities. If this trend continues at the next election we can expect a sharp drop in the proportion of women AMs in the next decade of devolution.

So, much work still needs to be done in the sphere of women’s representation in politics in Wales. We hope that the Counting Women In campaign can make a contribution to the hard work already being done by women’s groups across Wales and we hope that you will join us. We look forward to help provide a leg up in the next giant leap for Welsh womankind.

Owain ap Gareth is Research and Campaigns Officer for Electoral Reform Society Wales.

Also within Politics and Policy