Parliament Project visit the Western Isles in bid to get more women into politics

The Parliament Project was founded three years ago by Lee Chalmers (pictured)

A two-hour workshop was held in Lewis last week as part of a nationwide project aimed at empowering, inspiring and encouraging women to run for political office in the UK.

Organised by the Parliament Project, the event held at the Caladh Inn in Stornoway sought to inspire women to get into politics and provide an inside track on how to run for office. Former Western Isles councillor Catriona Stewart shared her experiences as the guest speaker.

In 2017, for the first time in its history, the comhairle only returned male councillors.

There is also no female representation in the Eilean a’ Cheo ward on Highland Council, while Biz Campbell is the only female councillor in the Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh ward. Indeed, of the 74 Highland Council members, only 24 are women.

The Parliament Project was founded three years ago by Lee Chalmers, who is programme director at London Business School.

Speaking to the Free Press after last Thursday’s event, she explained the background to the initiative.

She said: “I had been on a trip to the US and I had seen there was a thing called the White House Project over there Ñ that had worked for 10-15 years on equipping women with the skills they felt they needed to get into politics.

“I remember coming back and thinking ‘where is that in the UK and who does that here?’ I then thought someone should do that, and maybe it should be me.”

Since its establishment, the Parliament Project has run workshops across Scotland and England which have attracted around 3,000 people to date.

Outlining the format for the events, Ms Chalmers said: “We always have a speaker, who has or is currently holding the role of MPs, MSP or councillor. So last night we had Catriona Stewart, who was a councillor in Stornoway for 10 years.

“I outline what is the role of a politician looks like – such as speaking about getting out and knocking on doors and handing out leaflets – and then a councillor, MP or MSP stands up and says ‘this I why I did it and this how I did it’.”

She added: “This issue of confidence is something that usually comes up in a workshop but that didn’t tonight. We had 27 women in the room in Stornoway, and just to give you a bit of a comparison we had 10 in Dundee a couple of weeks before – there is an appetite here for local women to go into politics.

“There were seven women who were candidates here in the local election last time, and the research does show that, generally, when women run, they do get elected – not every time, but there isn’t really a bias in the electoral system.”

Touching on the factors which could dissuade women from running for political office in the Western Isles, she said: “Lots of women are employed by the local authority, which is one of the main employers on the islands, and when you are elected you have to leave your local authority job, so that becomes an issue.

“You’ll find that a lot of retired people go for the council roles because it doesn’t put their job at risk. And, if you are raising a young family, the part-time salary of being a councillor is not enough. Those are some very practical issues the women raised last night.

“Female councillors have also had to fight a lot harder because in some cases they have come up against quite nasty comments that men who are standing don’t have to face.

“Only a quarter of councillors in Scotland are female, so this is actually an issue which affects women right across the country.”

In addition to their workshop events, the Parliament Project run an online ‘peer circle’ which enables those interested to identify their next steps, receive feedback from their communities and support one another during the process.

“Last time we ran that we had 170 women apply,” said Ms Chalmers. “We will be launching another one of these in October so that the women that have attended the workshops here – and in the one Dundee and the one we’ll be doing in Edinburgh soon – will get the chance to join one cohort in October.”

For more information, visit

Editorial: There is no shortage of potential female councillors in the north-west – they must be persuaded into office.

The absence of any female councillors in the whole of the Western Isles, following the last elections two years ago, has not done any favours to the good reputation of the islands.

We are supposed to be the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy, not the Saudi Arabia of women’s suffrage.

In fact we are neither. And the male dominance of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is not unique to the islands. There are no women councillors from Skye on Highland Council. The big western mainland constituency of Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh has only the redoubtable Biz Campbell.

That fact puts Ms Campbell in the extraordinary position of being the only female councillor returned from an immense rectangle which runs from Ness to Barra and from Glenelg to Ullapool, taking in the whole of Skye and 50,000 Highlanders in two local authorities.

If it wasn’t for Kate Forbes and Gail Ross the picture would be even bleaker. The representatives of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch and Caithness, Sutherland and Ross are the only directly-elected female members of the Scottish or United Kingdom parliaments in the Highlands and Islands. The rest, the other six, are all men.

Even considering that only 24 per cent of all Scottish councillors from Galloway to Shetland are women, those are unhappy statistics.

And the biggest damage is not to anybody’s reputation, but to the quality of representation.

Western Highland and Island women are not downtrodden and afraid to speak their minds. They have as much clarity, wit and insight as their sisters elsewhere – which is to say, more than most of their brothers – and we need their voices in our local and national democratic chambers.

As the former councillor Mairi Bremner pointed out in a television interview last week, female councillors not only speak for other women. They are also, generally speaking, more approachable and sympathetic and therefore do a better job in listening to and helping their male constituents.

That is why an organisation called the Parliament Project was in Lewis last week, and would also have visited Benbecula if the weather had allowed.

The Parliament Project was established two years ago “to inspire, empower and encourage women to run for political office in the UK”.

“Focusing on practical, hands-on training and support”, it runs workshops and webinars to demystify the process for women wanting to get involved in politics.

Its aim is to create “a groundswell of women entering political parties to ultimately achieve 51 per cent female representation in all spheres of politics”.

So how do we go from one female councillor in the whole of north-western Scotland to more than half of the entire representative body?

The first thing to do is discover why female representation is at its lowest ebb in the 21st century.

The project’s founder and director Lee Chalmers quickly discovered in Stornoway that island women do not lack confidence.

They do however regard the male-dominated council as it stands as a slightly inhospitable and old-fashioned institution in which a small corpus of women would feel uncomfortable and out of place.

This is a self-perpetuating state of affairs. If a council is a boys’ club which women prefer not to join, it will remain a boys’ club which women prefer not to join. To reverse that situation the glass ceiling must not only be broken; it must be smashed to smithereens.

It is to the credit of the current male council that they sponsored the visit of the Parliament Project, and therefore hopefully contributed to their own demise. Those men have an important role to play in smashing the glass ceiling.

Another problem, which is particularly pertinent to the Highlands and especially the islands, is the ruling which forbids council employees to sit as councillors.

The comhairle is a huge employer, especially of women. Those employees tend to include the kind of qualified, professional women who might otherwise be tempted to run for office. But asked to choose between their jobs and sitting on the council, they will naturally stick to their jobs.

That is an understandable bulwark against corruption. Nobody wants to see a councillor who is also a council executive pressing her council colleagues for big salary increases for council executives.

The restriction has a disproportionate effect on sparsely-populated areas, however. There is already some leeway in the ruling. Perhaps more adjustments to councillors’ conduct legislation could be explored, to open the council doors to blameless council employees.

There certainly are more Mairi Bremners and Morag Munros out there, and our local authorities need them. All options should be explored to allow them into office.

Main article by Adam Gordon