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Fiona Mackay - 4 May 2003

Contrary to all expectations, women campaigners are celebrating the return of a record number of female MSPs to the Scottish Parliament, There had been widespread fears that the number of women parliamentarians would drop in this election, losing Scotland its place near the top of the world league tables. However, analysis shows an increase from 48 to 51 female MSPs - around 40%, up from 37.2% in 1999, and that this has been achieved by accident, rather than design.

A spokeswoman for the 50/50 campaign said ' We are delighted at this progress towards our target of 50/50 representation at all levels of politics and public life. We congratulate those parties - particularly the Labour Party and the Scottish Socialist Party - who have demonstrated their commitment to gender equality in the Scottish Parliament. But we still have a way to go before we catch up with Wales - where 50% women and 50% men were elected to the Welsh Assembly yesterday. We would like to see all the parties pledge to take urgent action for future elections, because you have to start now if the parties that have abysmal numbers of women are to make a difference next time round, and to ensure that continued progress is made.'

The number of women MSPs was widely predicted to fall this time round, largely because the SNP failed to place women candidates in favourable positions on its party lists, in contrast to 1999 - one of the reasons that Margot McDonald left the SNP to fight as an Independent. Ironically, the poor performance of the SNP and the strong showing by the SSP and Independents such as Margot McDonald played a
crucial role in reversing the potential losses of women parliamentarians.

Dr Fiona Mackay a lecturer in politics at Edinburgh University said: 'The result is great news for women's political representation - but has been achieved more by accident than design.' Dr Mackay pointed to a number of factors which contributed to the outcome. This includes the pattern of Labour's losses, with men bearing the brunt of constituency defeats. Women now hold 26 of Labour's 46 constituency seats

(56.5%) and 2 of their 4 list seats (50%) comprising 28/50 seats (56%) overall. The second major factor has been the strong performance of small parties, particularly the SSP which had implemented a policy of gender balance on its lists. In the final event, electoral arithmetic resulted in women taking four of the SSP's six seats. Finally two of the three Independent MSPs are women: Jean Turner who had a surprise victory in the constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden and Margot McDonald who gained a List seat in Lothians.

Women are 56% of Labour MSPs and two-thirds of SSP MSPs compared with a third of SNP MSPs, 29% of Greens, 22% of Conservatives and just 12% of Liberal Democrats. Despite recent legislation passed by the UK government which enables political parties to use positive action to improve levels of women's representation, only the Labour Party and the SSP used specific measures. This compares with Wales where women took 50% of the 60 seats in the National Assembly up from 40% in 1999 - including a staggering 63% of Labour seats.

Notes/ background

One of the key features of the first Scottish Parliament was the relatively high proportion of women MSPs which resulted from a sustained campaign for '50/50' by the STUC women's committee, women's organisations such as Engender and female party activists in the run up to devolution. The campaign was recently relaunched by the STUC Women's Committee, the Equal Opportunities Commission and Engender following fears of reversals at Holyrood and the stalling of progress at Westminster and local government levels.

The Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002 permits political parties to take positive measures to improve the number of women candidates they select. For further information see www.womenandequalityunit.gov.uk/public_life/parliament.htm

The Women's Manifesto, Equal Access & Involvement for these elections can be viewed at www.engender.org.uk/pdfs/Manifesto.pdf

For more information on women's political and information movements in Scotland check out Engender