Archive for category Gender

Soylent Green is… not real.

As has been covered by the UK-wide Green blog Bright Green, there has been a bit of a stooshie amongst  some unreformed environmentalists after the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, Natalie Bennett, made a speech unashamedly embracing immigration.

The population control lobby are a stick which people use to beat Green movements the world over, accusing them of authoritarianism or, at worst, eugenics.

A simple-minded approach to environmental problems says that there are too many people, and that we should just have fewer of them to solve all problems. This is less noticeable in Scotland but to the casual observer might appear true in England where issues of sprawl consuming green space is far more prevalent.  England’s problem is more that it has an addiction to suburban housing estates instead of building high density sustainable urban housing and social space – one of the great ironies of the modern suburb is that they often have lower levels of access to the things they were designed to facilitate – namely a higher quality of life outside of urban centres. Such spread is what led to the expansion of the slip road and the motorway and much else besides, along with an associated decline in point to point urban travel such as buses and railways.

Even if Britain were overcrowded, keeping people out would not save the planet anyway. As science hurriedly maps the global ecosystem it is becoming increasingly apparent just how interdependent we all are in areas other than the global economy. Stopping people from entering the UK would do nothing to stop population growth and the associated environmental burdens whatsoever.

If the far right or the population lobby were serious about stopping immigration they would plough as much money as possible into the developing world to encourage the transition to the relatively gender-equal societies of Europe and North America, give countries help in moving on from the economic or social pressure to have large families, and push to reform international trade so that it did not put economic and population growth as the primary means by which countries advance.

The population lobby should direct its ire at half a century of misplaced architecture and planning or the bizarre injustices of the global economy, as contemporary Greens are, and lose the Soylent Green dystopian scaremongering.

Gender balance and liberalism

Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 11.39.08Some are surprised that the Lib Dems (“of all people”) are having problems with gendered abuse of power and under-representation of women. But the signs were there.

They’re the only party other than the SNP never to have had female leadership in Scotland or UK-wide (and the SNP would almost certainly choose Nicola if a vacancy appeared just now). Between 2007 and 2011, the Lib Dems elected just two female MSPs from a group of sixteen, an even worse ratio than their current tally of one woman amongst the diminished group of five.

If you look at the betting for the next leader of the Lib Dems UK-wide, you have to go past eight men to find the first woman on the list – Jo Swinson, as it happens – then Lynne Featherstone is the next to feature, many places later. The bookies deem that a less likely outcome even than the return of Charles Kennedy.

But will they do anything about it? No, because it’s a top-down solution, they say. No, because, we’re told by as senior a figure as Paddy Ashdown, gender-balanced selection would be illiberal, although he did say it’d be worth doing if Rennard’s “leadership programme” didn’t succeed, which is one question that’s surely been answered.

The Scottish Greens had a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale, during our first Holyrood heyday. We elected seven MSPs, much to our surprise: five men and two women. And as a result, we decided to introduce gender balanced selection principles. We, in this case, means the membership. Not the leadership. One member one vote at Conference – that’s where gender balance was won. There was nothing top-down about it whatsoever. It was the will of the party, and it would have been undemocratic not to move in that direction.

Given the number of Green incumbents in 2007, those principles were first tested nationally in 2011. Sure, it’s easy with two MSPs, you might say, and other factors come into play, but more or less however large a group we’d elected in 2011 it’d have been roughly gender balanced. And the effect has been clear, as discussed in 2009: more women are coming forward for selection, and that is definitely at least in part because they see other women being selected and winning.

Is it suspicious of me to think that the reasons the Lib Dems oppose this as “top-down” is because the party rank and file are either impotent to bring it into effect or because they couldn’t be trusted to vote for it? Either way, surely they have to change now.

It’d be wrong to sneer at proper programmes designed to support women candidates and prospective candidates, though, obviously provided such schemes are not run by unaccountable men for their own benefit. Those are something the Greens have only had limited capacity to establish, and there’s definitely more we could be doing here.

People have long snickered at the Lib Dems, and even now the phrase “Rennard wielded complete power” sounds absurd. He’s a Lib Dem, for goodness sake. But the boys’ club is in power now, or at least they put the Tories into power and themselves into office. The idea that women intrinsically make better or more progressive decisions is sexist bunk, but a party where women are just as able to progress would undoubtedly be one with a healthier political atmosphere.

Jumping into bed with the Swedes

Shetland's hybrid Scots-Scandinavian flag

Shetland: Already halfway there

There have, in the past week, been a few noteworthy articles regarding the Scandinavian shadow which looms large over the issue of Scottish independence, as well as the future and makeup of Scotland’s economy, welfare system and society more generally.

Now I write this as somebody who knows a fair deal more about Scandinavia than most, for both personal and professional reasons.  A colleague of mine in the Greens remarked that the next Scottish Green manifesto should just be called ‘Scandinavian Nirvana’, such is the appetite in the party for increased welfare, greater social freedoms, gender equality and local democracy. I wholeheartedly agree.

Which brings me to something said by Blair McDougall in a BBC interview on the independence referendum. He accuses his opposite number in the Yes campaign, the significantly more articulate and less hackish Blair Jenkins, of wanting ‘57 per cent tax like in Norway’. There are indeed people in Norway paying that much tax, but these kind of people are not the salt of the earth working men and women which McDougall thinks will be crushed by the weight of Kaiser Salmond’s iron taxation, if he did indeed have such plans.

Then there was a report in The Economist which made the odd logical step of collating the radical reforms by centre-right governments in Sweden and formerly in Denmark with the high living standards and safe economies of the Nordic countries. As the Swedish journalist Katrin Kielos noted, there is an awful schizophrenia about the new craze for the Nordic centre-right, in that it assumes that being Scandinavian is a virtue in itself and argues that the path forward for these secure and durable systems is to follow a more British or American model . It is a trend which wishes to dine on the fruits of the Scandinavian countries’ labour whilst seeking to undermine it at its foundations.

The whole thing is illustrative of the fact that there is a huge amount of ignorance about the way in which Scandinavian society functions, and that this ignorance can be used to significant political advantage. It is also debatable to what extent it is even appropriate to address the Nordic countries as a single unit. There are however certain things which underpin  ‘the Scandinavian model’ which Scotland would have to adopt were it to develop in such a direction.

The first is a strict ethos of universalism. Not all services are free in Sweden or its neighbours, but notable by its absence is the incredibly British notion of selective assistance. Britain seems to implicitly accept that there should be huge gaps in income between different levels of society, and that one of the roles of public welfare is to alleviate this. It is a mode of thinking which the New Labour project perfected with its targeted alleviation, support for bright pupils from state schools and university access bursaries, without ever tackling the structural causes of poverty and discrimination.

Secondly, the way in which Scandinavian trade unions work is different to the British model. The nostalgia for the 1970s which pervades much of Britain’s left ignores the fact that old British models of trade-unionism were what allowed public support for the radical reforms of the 1980s. The systems of collective bargaining employed in Sweden and relatively high levels of unionisation amongst what might be termed normal people means that it is both destigmatised and can claim to represent large portions of the population.  This system has come under attack from centre-right governments in recent years but has survived relatively intact. The Scandinavian countries do not have a legal minimum wage, but they do have an effective minimum wage proportionally higher than Scotland, leading to a reduction in income inequality before the tax system has even played its redistributive  role.

And once tax is collected, where does it go? Not into benefits as they might be normally understood, but rather into the provision of universal services.  Childcare, incredibly well funded education systems, transport and infrastructure and healthcare.  The biggest challenge to Scotland is whether it is possible to transfer to this type of system given the appalling disparity evident in the country and present. It is in the interests of every Scottish woman to vote for a scenario which will provide the funding and structures for them to work and live on the same terms as men (and from a male feminist perspective, in men’s interest too).

Now to return to Blair McDougall and his mythical 57 per cent tax rate, I would say that it would only become an issue when you earn as much money as a senior press adviser or an MP.  Having large tax reserves means that in times of crisis governments are able to effectively deal with them, unlike the British model of medium taxation on an out of control financial system without any thought as to the after effects.

So to be realistic, adopting a Scandinavian social model would involve higher rates of tax, but it would also involve higher wages and better public services. In real terms incomes might well be higher, or at least remain static whilst providing for higher levels of public investment.

The whole thing is also dependent on a grand narrative. People vote for things because they believe in their viability, and the Scandinavian system is underpinned by a notion of functional redistribution different from the dominant discourse in Britain, and even in Scotland. It isn’t about smashing the rich or shooting bankers at dawn, but rather about building a cohesive society which works in the interest of all. As Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg says, “to create we must share, and to share we must create.”

David Leask’s excellent ‘As Others See Us’ column in the Herald, in which a group of Norwegians were asked for their opinion on independence, was revealing. The lack of interest in Scotland’s constitutional future was unsurprising – I frequently find myself explaining to Swedes the ins and outs of the independence movement – as Scotland is not politically visible. The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter  recently published a feature on Europe’s contemporary independence movements which mentioned Scotland in the same breath as the Northern League in Italy and Flemish separatism in Belgium, entirely ignoring the broadly leftist motivations found in the majority of pro-independence groups and parties in Scotland. The challenge will be to explicitly build the construction of a sustainable and humane welfare state into the Scottish cultural narrative at home and abroad.

Neither would we or should we transform Scotland into Scandinavia overnight. When talking with a good friend of mine about how I hoped to live in a Scotland where I felt the state and society treated me and any potential wife/partner equally she smiled wryly and wished me good luck, with some justification. But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try. I answered that to combine the best aspects of Scotland and Sweden would create something beautiful, but that it would require the type of radical social change not seen since the 1960s. It would be a national project which larger countries would be entirely incapable of, but which might just work in Scotland. Scandinavia might be a fluid concept with many faces, but the values which it ostensibly represents are what we should really be aiming for. Both financially and morally, we cannot afford not to.

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Time to help Scotland’s male politicians with their election problems

A very welcome guest post today from Lena Wångren and Dominic Hinde. Dominic is a Scots Green activist and doctoral student in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Lena is a post-doctoral researcher at the department of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. She is originally from Stockholm and has been active in feminist campaigning in both Sweden and Scotland.

Looking back at the Scottish local elections, it is appalling to see just how male-dominated Scottish politics (and public life) is. There was husting upon husting without a single female candidate from any of Scotland’s more established political parties, and the SNP in particular were frustratingly male. In hindsight this is hardly surprising given the macho personality politics upon which Alex Salmond has built the SNP.

Then, the week after the election, people in social media (women included) were casually tossing around phrases such as ‘unionist witch’ to describe Johann Lamont and Margaret Curran. Just imagine if those words hadn’t been aimed at women but at someone from an ethnic minority. South of the border, and in a different context, backbench Tory MP Louise Mensch suffered even more violent sexist abuse via Twitter because of her defence of Rupert Murdoch. She may support an enemy of a free press, but the people who ganged up on her from the safety of their smartphones should not be welcome in any political forum. Now we’re fans of neither the Scottish Labour Party nor the SNP, just before we get accused of being partisan, in part because neither party seem aware that Scotland needs a new and proactive feminism in order to break down barriers for women, increase opportunities in some areas for men, and to generally move on to create the ‘beacon of progressiveness’ which the First Minister claims it is our manifest destiny to become.

When was the last time anyone stood up in the chamber at Holyrood and declared that they were a feminist? Who is brave enough to say that feminism is not a historical phenomenon but more current than ever in its potential to change society for the better? Not big Eck for sure.

Domestic violence, shared maternity and paternity leave, sexual assault, academic and employment opportunities, sexual and family health and economic performance are all areas in which a robust and progressive feminist politics can help to make Scotland a better place. And implicitly grounded in all these issues is a potential destabilising of the rigid gender roles that restrict us as individuals. Politics is about policy, but it is also about creating the social debates which allow those policies to succeed. It is about changing the mindset of the establishment to the extent that feminism is seen as a public good and not just a fringe interest. In the same way that the growth of the Greens has brought environmentalism in from the fringes to the centre, we hope that they might do the same with gender politics.

The Greens would appear ready-made for taking a more central stage in discussions regarding gender equality in Scotland, with their policy of having a male and a female co-convenor. Something which we would like to see more of is both Patrick Harvie and Martha Wardrop appearing and debating together, as is the case with their counterparts in Sweden.

Likewise, if Cameronite Swedish conservative leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, along with many leaders of the other main parties, can stand up in Parliament and feel obliged to at least pay lip service to the movement, then so can Holyrood.

The Greens do however face a great challenge in bringing gender equality on top of the agenda as the situation here is rather different than in Sweden. Both countries have long histories of labour and women’s movements, but the focus on gender has been left behind in the UK. There is a significant difference in how the public discourse approaches feminism. In the UK, the term ‘feminist’ is often considered a derogatory label, falsely seen as implying an ideology in which women should be posited above men. (We have yet to meet one single feminist who identifies their politics in terms of women’s supposed superiority.) In Sweden however, the term feminist is taken for what it is – a struggle for gender equality, through which people of all genders will benefit.

Furthermore, while in the UK we sometimes see a biologically essentialist claim to feminism -the idea that ‘only women can be feminists’-, in Sweden there is no requirement to identifying as a feminist beyond a support for the aims of the same rights for all, male or female.  And feminism is indeed for everyone. In Sweden, a robust feminist politics has created equal parental leave (one and a half years in total, to be divided between the parents irrespective of their sex), affordable and pedagogical nurseries with highly educated staff, political representation of women which has steadily increased since the early twentieth century (the ratio in the Swedish Parliament is currently 45 percent women and 55 percent men). Rather than having to defend your feminism, in Sweden you might have to defend why you do not identify as one.

There is major potential for a Green feminist politics in Scotland. Presently, there is not one single party in Holyrood that explicitly espouses feminist policies, or even has a particular section of their politics based around gender equality. There may exist a ‘Labour Women’ group, but the party itself has not lately been speaking up for gender equality. The progressive libertarians in the Lib Dems aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to take a stand either, and even though the Greens have ‘equality’ as one of their main focuses – gender equality seems to have gone missing of late.In the latest Green manifesto, the term ‘gender’ was used only once .The term ‘feminist’ was entirely absent.

We want to create a Scotland which is more equal, democratic and environmentally responsible. An innovative feminist agenda is an important component in this, and the Greens should be the party to take it forward. They have time and time again proven themselves to be capable of innovation and ideas far and above their resources and representation, and we sincerely hope that the growth of the Greens coincides with a sea change in our country’s appreciation of feminist politics.