We have a most welcome guest from Juliet Swann today. Juliet works for the Electoral Reform Society in Scotland. She blogs for them professionally occasionally here, and has her own personal blog here.

Imagine a female Prime Minister. Hold on, AND, a female Chancellor, and the Defence Secretary is a woman, and so is the Speaker, and the Leader of the Opposition, and the Opposition Chancellor, and the Leader of the House of Lords. And in the Scottish Parliament, the Cabinet is led by a female First Minister, with only the Health Secretary and the Culture Secretary standing out as being male.

It feels strange to imagine, and yet, by accepting that the reverse as the norm, and as okay, we are also accepting that 50% of the population don’t deserve 50% of representation in our political institutions.

I’m not going to second guess whether policy decisions would be different with a better gender balance in Parliament, but ignoring half the population is never a good idea, not least because it means we lose their talents and perspectives.

Our political institutions shouldn’t be carbon copies of society, but when they represent an entirely distorted picture of who we are, this can’t help but create a parliament which is out of touch with the people it serves.

Devolution was supposed to herald a new era of gender balance in politics. In 1999 Scottish Labour’s pairing policy saw the party return 28 women out of 56 MSPs. In 2003’s “rainbow Parliament” the SSP returned twice as many women as men, and Labour’s gender balance improved as the six seats they lost were all held by men, but overall women still only numbered 51 of 129. The Liberal Democrats have only ever returned two female MSPs, even when they held 17 seats. With their highest number of sitting MSPs, the SNP have only 18 women out of 69.

Labour still have 17 of 37, which is only just shy of 50%, demonstrating that even with a loss of overall numbers, the pairing policy that worked so well in 1999 has enabled them to maintain a good gender balance, even though they have not continued to promote positive measures. (Imagine where they might be if they had…)

Then we can look to local government – with the second STV local election just around the corner, surely, as the electorate can rate their candidates by preference, rather than placing all their eggs in one basket the parties will have thought about gender balance? Because would it not make you think twice if you realised that although you could express a preference, that preference had to be male?

And yet, to highlight Edinburgh’s list of candidates:  the Liberal Democrats have just two women among their 17 candidates. Labour is fielding eight female candidates out of a total of 23 and the Tories have six women among their 20 hopefuls. Only the Greens achieved a gender balance with eight women and nine men.

Of the smaller parties or independents standing, only 3 are women.

“perhaps no women were interested”, “women don’t have time, with childcare responsibilities”, “parties should select the best people, regardless of gender”, “women aren’t attracted to the cut and thrust world of politics”

These excuses, and they are excuses, will not stand. In 2012, in a first world country with girls exceeding boys in education, it is absurd to suggest women don’t want or are not able to match men in the political sphere.

Firstly, politics needs women, it needs to represent all of us. Secondly, perhaps we need to re-think how politics works, or how childcare works, if in 2012 women are not standing for election because they have kids. After all men have children too. Thirdly, the only way to encourage more women is to ensure they have role models to aspire to, believe in and emulate.

You’ll have noticed the Green party achieved gender balance. That’s because they have a strong gender policy. It’s not rigid, but it is strong. And as time goes on, it becomes easier to meet the 50/50 target because women see other women succeeding and as we all know, success breeds success.

Arguments for quotas and strong gender policies are often refuted as ‘meddling’. I would never argue that quotas are perfect, they are an interim measure to address an inbalance. But something needs to change.

We need to stop saying that positive measures lead to mediocrity. This is an argument with no evidence and no logic. We see mediocrity and brilliance across politics and it never has anything to do with gender. Secondly we need to act now. The idea that the situation will eventually right itself is a cowardly excuse for doing nothing. The number of women MPs has increased by only 4% since 1997. If we don’t do something our daughters will be drawing their pensions before they have an equal say in how our country is run. Is that really the message we want to send to our kids?

The new campaign Counting Women IN was born out of this anger. Five democracy and gender organisations – The Centre for Women & Democracy, The Fawcett Society, The Hansard Society, Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society – came together to campaign for equality: for equal numbers of men and women in our Parliaments and institutions by 2020. It’s a positive campaign designed to work with parties in recognition of their separate cultures, histories and practices to achieve real change. Equality, that’s all we’re asking for.

Join the call for 50/50 equality for men and women in politics at www.countingwomenin.org