How feminist is the Welsh Assembly?

Liz Silversmith surveys the facts and asks some difficult questions

Liz Silversmith has a background in working for Welsh MPs in Parliament and AMs in Cardiff Bay, as well as running campaigns. She currently coordinates the housing campaign Let Down in Wales.

As we draw to the end of the Fourth Assembly, it can be declared fairly ‘feminist’. From 2011 to 2016 we’ve seen 24 female and 36 male AMs. A 40/60 rather than 50/50 split, but many of these women have been in strong positions within the Welsh Government: stalwarts Jane Hutt and Edwina Hart have been in Cabinet since 1999. This term’s Cabinet has also included Lesley Griffiths in numerous Ministerial positions and in Deputy Ministerial positions we’ve seen Julie James, Gwenda Thomas and Rebecca Evans – but it’s not often women control health or education. At this point, the Cabinet has five women and seven men. Again, not quite 50/50.

The Assembly did have equal representation back in 2003, and many regard that achievement as a high tide mark for equality. The Assembly has won numerous awards for being a family-friendly, LGBT-friendly and disability-friendly place to work. Its Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon sittings are much more conducive to AMs having a family life when compared to say, the Westminster Parliament, and the very nature of a small country like Wales means AMs don’t have to travel as much as certain MPs do.

But what about the next Assembly? There’s a worrying downward trend. Hopefully we’ll see the strong women in opposition continue in leading roles, particularly if there are coalition arrangements. Leanne Wood became leader of Plaid in 2012 and brought the party to a prominent position by appearing in the General Election debates. After this, she became more widely recognised than the First Minister, quite a coup for an AM known for her rebellious ways: calling the Queen ‘Mrs Windsor’ and being arrested for protesting against Trident. But as Plaid’s chances of securing a majority are very low, it’s more likely Leanne Wood might take a Deputy First Minister role in any Plaid-Labour coalition than fulfilling her ambition to be Wales’ first female FM.

Kirsty Williams could be another potential coalition partner, if Labour need just a handful of AMs to make up the numbers. She’s widely admired and known for collaborating with the Welsh Government where possible to secure Liberal Democrat policies in budget deals. She has also pushed through a Member’s Bill on safe nurse staffing levels and, despite often working together with Welsh Labour, is frequently the strongest performer in FMQs when subjecting Carwyn Jones to scrutiny. Many people across the spectrum in Welsh politics hope that the hardworking Brecon & Radnorshire AM holds on to her seat.

Regarding the Welsh Conservatives, only four of their 14 AMs are women and they have never had a female leader. However all four have held shadow policy positions to good effect: Angela Burns has been particularly strong on the education brief, as was Antoinette Sandbach who left to be an MP in May 2015. However, without positive discrimination measures like All Women Shortlists, it doesn’t look likely the Tories will increase their female representation by much this time around.

All Women Shortlists are the main reason the Assembly saw a 50/50 gender split in 2003. Labour’s use of them frequently causes local upset amongst male members who want a go at a particular seat, but most advocates really do wish they didn’t need them. Unfortunately, they’re the only way the party can ensure progress. If all parties used them, perhaps 2003’s 50/50 high watermark would be a common fixture of the Welsh Assembly.

But representation alone is not the whole picture. How feminist was the Fourth Assembly in policy terms. It doesn’t help to stuff the Senedd with women if none of the Bills they pass help to tackle gender inequality in wider society. The Fourth Assembly has seen the Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act passed, but not without a battle from the third sector to change the title from the ‘Gender-based Violence’ Bill, to recognise the disproportionate impact on women. This is important not only symbolically, but to recognise that there needs to be more women’s refuges (whilst never ignoring the need for services for men too). There was also a fight from Jocelyn Davies to ensure ‘healthy relationships’ are taught in schools, as she pushed for the Welsh Government to take a long-term view to tackling harmful attitudes between genders. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act works towards a ‘more equal Wales’, but this is legislation is yet to be fully tested and has been criticised as woolly, although its aims are admirable.

Looking ahead to the elections, how many female AMs are we likely to see return? Candidates are still being chosen, but there’s a worrying number of influential women leaving and not seeking re-election. In Labour, this includes Edwina Hart, Gwenda Thomas, Christine Chapman, Sandy Mewies and Presiding Officer, Rosemary Butler, who in the last few years has led a ‘Women in Public Life’ campaign.

From Plaid, Jocelyn Davies is leaving, which is a great shame given her valuable scrutiny and experience. No Conservative women are confirmed to be leaving, but in the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Eluned Parrott will have a hard battle in Cardiff Central against Jenny Rathbone. Jenny Rathbone herself is the Labour backbencher who was – worryingly – removed from a Committee chair position simply for voicing her own opinions.

Even if plenty of women get selected as candidates, how many are in winnable seats? Yet again, many of the safest seats with male candidates are nearly guaranteed a win, with women left with the hardest and most difficult majorities to tackle. This means plenty of male candidates will be confident of their success, whereas the women will have to work much harder to beat their opposition.

Looking ahead to 2016, the turnover of AMs bring into question how much further away the Senedd might move from equal representation. UKIP is not known for its equality policies and the number of seats it is expected to gain (up to nine, potentially) will be unlikely to feature many women. We’re a long way off a female First Minister, but we might see the female opposition leaders take on roles as junior coalition partners. It would be remiss not to mention the Women’s Equality party fielding candidates in South Wales Central, and the new female Wales Green Party leader, Alice Hooker-Stroud, but unfortunately these smaller parties look unlikely to gain many seats. However, they are likely to grab the opportunity to ask voters specifically for their regional votes, rather than waste efforts on constituency campaigns.

The Assembly set itself an admirable benchmark in 2003 – and temporarily in 2006 after a by-election, when it actually had 52% women – but if parties get complacent about propelling Wales to gender equality, it won’t be able to reach it again.

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