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Half and half

Brian Taylor | 11:57 UK time, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Bumped into Maria Fyfe at the party conference. No, not the LibDem conference.

Don't think, on balance, she's likely to defect. My encounter was at the Labour conference in Dundee the week previously.

You must remember Maria Fyfe. She was MP for Glasgow Maryhill - in the days when that great city's seats were named after community locations instead of points on a compass.

I remember her in particular for her efforts to secure greater representation for women in the Scottish Parliament - which is why, of course, our chance meeting came back to me subsequently.

Maria was one of a Labour group including Johann Lamont, Margaret Curran and many others who advocated a 50/50 approach in the prelude to the establishment of the devolved Parliament.

By which they meant the members of the new Parliament should be gender balanced: half of them women, half of them men.

As I recall, the campaign attempted firstly to prescribe this by legislation. When that failed, they proceeded via internal party action, including a concordat between Labour and the Liberal Democrats that these two parties - signatories to the Convention - would seek as far as possible to achieve gender balance.

I recall interviewing Maria at the old BBC Scotland HQ in Queen Margaret Drive. I was giving her the customary hard time.

Wasn't this political manipulation? Shouldn't women get there on merit? Wasn't there a risk that women, thus favoured, would be seen as second rank MSPs?

Maria listened and answered politely, as was her wont. Then, displaying a moment's exasperation, she paused and sighed: "Look, Brian, this really matters. Have you got any better ideas?"

As I recorded in a book about the advent of devolution (second edition, still available from all....), the interview with the MP from Maryhill ended rather soon afterwards.

This brief encounter - and the one in Dundee - came back to me as I perused the stushie in Airdrie over the attempted imposition of an all-women shortlist in selecting an individual to replace John Reid MP as Labour candidate for Airdrie and Shotts (plus, of course, those all-important surrounding villages.)

One can readily understand the anger in Airdrie. White Lanarkshire males are so under-represented in Scottish Labour politics.

However, perhaps this is also about a power clash.

In Lanarkshire, it seems, they dislike the notion of politics being run by a potent, centralised clique. (Or, more accurately, by someone else's potent centralised clique; by London's PCC.)

Ach, I shouldn't mock. There are serious points to be made on both sides of the argument here.

I well recall the comparable disputes at the advent of devolution - and, as is often the case, they all had salience.

Justice was not solely in one corner.

There were those who said that women's representation was so pitifully low that it had to be boosted by artificial intervention.

They argued - further and with some force - that it was vital to attempt this task when there was a clean slate, before incumbency and inertia froze the females out.

There were those who disliked using party machinery, still less the law, for this purpose.

They argued that parliaments and parties must rather address why they were unable to recruit women in winnable seats.

There were those who said: leave well alone. Party machines play too big a role in the selection of candidates as it is. Leave it to local choice. Leave it, ultimately, to the voters.

This particular row, of course, is about a Westminster seat, not Holyrood. But the core elements of the argument can be set out exactly as above.

Enough, Brian, enough.

As Maria Fyfe will undoubtedly remind me when next we meet, this really matters.

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