‘Structural and cultural change’ needed to curb abuse and gender inequality in politics, campaigners say

Caitlin Logan

Equal representation campaigners welcome Scottish Parliament debate on tackling abuse and intimidation in politics – but say more can be done

  • Scottish Parliament debates motion on “tackling intimidation in public life” by creating a Code of Conduct for MSPs, put forward by Conservative MSP Rachael Hamilton
  • Women 50:50 campaign and the Young Women’s Movement welcome the motion and highlight abuse of women in public life, while stressing the need for “cultural and structural change”
  • John Smith Centre director Kezia Dugdale welcomes the debate, says the centre’s research shows “people who might have considered standing are put off by the nature and scale of the abuse politicians face online”
  • Labour MSP Monica Lennon echoes campaigners’ calls for “positive action” to address barriers to women’s participation in politics

ORGANISATIONS seeking to boost political representation of women have welcomed a debate taking in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday night (12 November) on “tackling intimidation in public life” and called for structural change to address inequality in politics. 

The debate was based on a motion put forward by Scottish Conservative MSP Rachael Hamilton which calls on the Scottish Parliament to establish a Code of Conduct which would “set out the minimum standards of behaviour expected from all political party members in order to reduce intimidation and abuse in public life and raise public awareness about its impact”.

This follows an announcement by the Westminster parliament’s committee on standards in public life and the Jo Cox Foundation that they will create a Joint Standard of Conduct with these aims.

In the motion, Hamilton states that the high level of abuse directed at women in politics is “yet another barrier for women to be elected to public office” and that addressing the issue is “one way that the Parliament and other elected bodies in the UK can empower more women to stand for election and help achieve equal gender representation”.

Women 50:50, a campaign for equal representation at all levels of politics in Scotland, has welcomed the motion but said systemic change was needed to achieve its aims.

READ MORE: Young women still face entry barriers to Scottish politics’ ‘old boys’ club’, new research finds

Chair of Women 50:50 Talat Yaqoob said: “We have seen the disproportionate level of abuse women in public life face, especially women of colour. This needs to be taken seriously and our parliament, our councils, as well as individual parties, need to take action.

“One of our three asks at this General Election is for parties to make a real commitment to improve reporting mechanisms and to take action against perpetrators of abuse, sexism and bigotry, to stamp out this behaviour in our politics.

“We welcome this initiative, but we also need system and culture change.

“We advocate for candidate quotas, an intervention which would mean parties have to select 50 per cent women candidates – because we want parties to have to seriously reflect on how they operate and whether they are creating political spaces which are inclusive and safe, particularly for disabled, working class and BAME women, to fully participate in.”

Women 50:50’s three election calls are for parties to implement “improved reporting mechanisms and real action against perpetrators” of sexism, bigotry and harassment; to commit to devolve the legislation for candidate quotas to the Scottish Parliament; and to enact section 105 of the Equality Act, making it mandatory for political parties to report on candidate diversity data.

The Young Women’s Movement (YWCA Scotland), which co-founded the Scotland’s Women Stand campaign along with the Parliament Project and runs a political engagement programme for young women in the Scottish Parliament, also stressed the importance of the issues raised by the motion.

Director Dr Patrycja Kupiec said: “The Young Women’s Movement co-founded Scotland’s Women Stand to empower women of all ages and backgrounds to stand for election, so that we don’t have to wait another 100 years for equal representation to become reality.

“75 per cent of surveyed women who stated they felt politically engaged went on to say they would not consider running for public office.” Young Women’s Movement research

“We have explored the barriers to equal representation for young women in our annual Status of Young Women in Scotland research in 2018, and the results highlighted that feeling routinely belittled and patronised; the fear of online judgement and abuse; the current political climate; and the inaccessibility of the political system contributed to putting women off from considering running for public office.

“The fact that 75 per cent of surveyed women who stated they felt politically engaged then went on to say that they would not consider running for public office suggests that true representation may be out of reach if we don’t work to remove these barriers first.”

Kupiec said the organisation would welcome the creation of a Joint Standard of Conduct to tackle intimidation and abuse, but added that “in order to achieve equal representation, a structural and cultural change needs to happen to create a political system that truly welcomes and supports diversity of experiences and background”.

The John Smith Centre, which carries out research into politics and public service at the University of Glasgow, has also raised concerns about the impact of online abuse in particular on participation in politics.

Welcoming the Scottish Parliament debate on the issue, John Smith Centre director and former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said: “The John Smith Centre exists to make the positive case for politics and public service. We want to break down the barriers that so many people face accessing politics and thinking about elected life.

“Our research shows that people who might have considered standing are put off by the nature and scale of the abuse politicians face online.

“This is really serious, because if good people choose not step forward to represent their community and country, we all suffer as a consequence.”

READ MORE: Scotland leads the way on gender representation on public boards

Dugdale, who stood down as an MSP earlier this year, has also tweeted her concerns about the reasons given by MPs standing down ahead of December’s General Election, stating that “many of them [are] citing the poisonous nature of the debate, or the amount of abuse they’ve faced online”.

Rachael Hamilton’s motion was signed by a further 20 out of 31 Scottish Conservative MSPs, along with five Scottish Labour MSPs, five SNP MSPs, and one Scottish Green MSP.

One of those was Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who has echoed campaigners’ calls for “positive action”. Speaking ahead of the debate, she said: “Abuse and intimidation of anyone in public life is never acceptable.

“For women in particular, it’s not surprising that the sexist nature of a lot of online abuse can be really off-putting to participation in politics.

“When we know that women are already under-represented in politics and public life, toxic attitudes in political debate can make it all the more difficult to break down those barriers.

“This code of conduct will be a welcome addition, and in the meantime we need to continue to support positive action, including gender quotas for parliamentary candidate selection, so that we can reach equal representation in all aspects of public life.”

The Women 50:50 campaign, first established in 2014, has been officially backed by the Scottish Green Party, Scottish Labour, Scottish Liberal Democrats and the SNP.

The Scottish Conservatives have refrained from signing up to the campaign.

Picture courtesy of Michaela Wenzler

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