Within political parties in Scotland, it is broadly accepted Equalities and Women’s Officers serve important roles. It is undoubtedly a good thing that this is the case. However, there is considerably less consensus (and indeed certainty) on the function of these roles and why they are so important.
Some people see such positions as symbolic – more representative of a commitment to diversity than substantively contributing to it. Others understand them as advisory, chipping in every once in a while to remind the rest of a given committee that women or people of colour or disabled people or LGBT+ people have a particular take on a given issue. Still others will heartily support the existence of such officers, but will not be quite able to pinpoint why that is, aside from a vague, if admirable, feeling that it is the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, as well-intentioned as the above attitudes often are, they are a symptom of a broader issue. It is simple enough to support the principles of inclusion and diversity generally, but it is almost equally simple to forget that as members of a political party, we have greater opportunity than most to practice what we preach. And if we truly mean to follow through on that, we must not avoid acknowledging the value and role of the Women’s Officer and Equality Officer. They are not just symbolic posts, nor intended to serve as a sole voice providing occasional titbits of inclusive wisdom, and as such, recognising the significance of these roles is perhaps nearly as important as having them in the first place.
For a start, both these posts play a crucial role in realising the potential of the party and its membership. The SNP in particular, as a party with over 100,000 members, counts among its ranks a great wealth of diverse experiences and backgrounds – nearly every background and demographic that Scotland has to offer. With this in mind, overlooking anything we can do to ensure that any social group is more able to contribute and expand the party’s capabilities would be tragic negligence. Women, LGBT+ people, and people of colour, for example, each have their own unique experiences of and approaches to activism; they can each reach different communities with which others might have difficulty connecting, communities that might otherwise feel disenfranchised or disillusioned by party politics.
Similarly, the assumption that we too-often make, however unintentionally, is that most peoples’ experiences roughly follow what we imagine to be the “mainstream” experience, which generally tends to be skewed towards a white, cis-het, middle class male experience. Though of course every individual’s experiences are unique, the perspectives and opinions of people who are part of a given demographic group will often have been influenced by their identity in ways that those not part of such a group may struggle to conceive of. This does not necessarily mean, for instance, that a lesbian’s LGBT+ identity is necessarily the sole and decisive characteristic in her identity as a whole. Everyone weighs each aspect of their own identity differently, and the value of recognising these aspects as interwoven rather than as distinct and competing cannot be overstated. But it does mean that, regardless of the importance that this person themselves places on a given aspect of their identity, their experiences, opinions, and perspectives will have been partially shaped by it. So the thoughts of whole demographic groups on a given topic or issue will never be monolithic and cannot, as such, be extrapolated or deduced or assumed. The contributions of the actual individuals themselves are irreplaceable.
These, then, are some of the reasons that Women’s Officers and Equalities Officers are so significant to the SNP and to the independence movement as a whole. The task and the challenge they face is not merely to be symbolic or representative, but to find ways to make party politics in the SNP more welcoming and accessible. The full and diverse population of Scotland must feel not only able and willing to join the SNP, but also to attend branch meetings, to make comments there and ask questions, to put forward resolutions and stand for committees and run for elected offices. Driving our local branches and national party toward this ideal is Women’s and Equalities Officers’ truer value. How else can we honestly claim to be Scotland’s national party?
To some, this means regular women’s meetings or properly involved affiliate organisations; to others a particular approach to running branch meetings; to others still, specific training for those of a certain background or identity. Whatever the method, these officers are irreplaceable and the fruits of their labours can, if properly supported, be transformative.
My own experience interacting with branches across Edinburgh and learning how their Women’s and Equalities Officers contribute has been as instructive as the methods are diverse. Campaigning techniques I’d never have thought of that makes canvassing more palatable to newer members and women in particular; well attended pre-branch meetings for certain groups, giving them greater confidence to attend and be active in their branch; informal discussion sessions allowing people to talk about their opinions and experiences on policy issues in an open and less rigid setting: these are all practices in this vein that have by all accounts been well received and produced strikingly positive results for the branches in question. They’re the sort of ideas I’m hoping to be able to support in my own branch.
It is not the case, as is occasionally argued, that this is about denigrating anybody who might benefit from the status quo, nor is it about undermining a system in which achievement is based on merit. It is no secret that our society tends to produce disproportionate success for those who are white, cis-het, abled, middle class, and male.
True progressive representation and change has by definition rarely resulted from an acceptance that the status quo is sufficient and fair. And if we accept that truth, then the Equalities and Women’s Officers of this party are the engine that can, if we all support them, drive us into becoming the representative, innovative, progressive, and equal party that we could and should be.