Sue McKellar was happy to admit that The Other Woman, a romantic comedy starring Cameron Diaz, was not the most aspirational fodder for her new baby Polly’s first cinema outing. But the four-week-old girl slept through the film and, in the foyer, her mother picked up a leaflet about an event at the cafe next door which pertained far more directly to her daughter’s future.
It was this mixture of political curiosity and readily available debate – which is happening throughout Scotland this spring – that brought McKellar to the launch of Mums for Change in Glasgow this week. The group – supported by Yes Scotland but self-financing – plans to hold a series of child-friendly informal conversations up to the independence referendum on 18 September.
McKellar, 36, describes herself as an instinctive no voter, but the rise of Ukip in England has given her pause. “On the other hand, I’m not sure where a Scottish government would stand on defence and social issues. Childcare should be the most important thing in any country, but the fact that it’s labelled a women’s issue is irritating.”
Suzanne Hogg, 40, has brought her nine-month-old son Jacob after reading about the event on Facebook. “I came here to hear the views of the yes side. I’m probably more towards no at the moment: I don’t know if it’s the time for change. I want to know how we’d divide finances and the NHS.”
She and her friend note wryly that, despite their stated intention to find out more, since their arrival they’ve only been assailed by journalists determined to discover more about them.
This interest is not surprising. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey has consistently found a gender gap in support for independence of between 6% and 7%, with the most recent Ipsos Mori polling widening it to 11 points. Combine this with the disproportionate number of women who say they are undecided and you have a pivotal, and massive, voting group that politicians, campaign strategists and the media are desperate to understand.
The past few months have seen a flurry of activity aimed at attracting female votes. On the eve of the SNP conference last month, Alex Salmond promoted two more women to his full cabinet, taking the tally to 40%, although official figures show that men still make 88% of budgeting decisions. Two weeks later, Labour launched five pledges for Scottish women around employment and representation.
Both the yes and no campaigns now have women-focused offshoots. Last week, BBC Scotland screened a peak-hour documentary on What Women Want, which resulted in something of a backlash for its concentration on bingo halls, wedding shows and the tea-making skills of the deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Meanwhile, the Scottish government is planning a women-only cabinet event for 9 June, 100 days before the referendum.
“What is certain is that women are as interested in the debate as men,” says Jeane Freeman, co-founder of the cross-party group Women for Independence and a former senior political adviser to Jack McConnell. “I’ve never seen meetings like the ones I’ve been to over the last few months: large numbers of women in halls and cafes, often when it’s chucking it down with rain, turning out to ask questions. And when women are decided, they are hugely active.”
This bottom-up engagement is just as evident to the pro-union camp. Talat Yaqoob, who lives in Edinburgh, is an activist for the Better Together women’s campaign. “There’s been much more effort to get women involved, on both sides,” she says, “and I’m very proud of that. I’ve had lots of conversations with minority and working-class women, and they want to be actively involved. It’s really important to go to them, making it as accessible as possible, not just ‘come and meet this MSP’ but giving them the platform to talk to each other.”
Yaqoob cautions against viewing female voters as a homogenous group: “We tend to use phrases like ‘risk averse’, but it’s not acceptable to assume women all think the same.”
And for Margaret Curran, the shadow Scottish secretary and Labour MP for Glasgow East, women’s apparent scepticism about independence is easily explained. “Women just get the fact that this is for ever. It’s really a significant decision and they want to take the time to think it through. Women aren’t swept away by the football/Braveheart momentum. They know they’ve got five months to go, and they want to read the literature.”
When the SNP made affordable childcare a main plank of its white paper on independence last November many, including Curran, dismissed the move as cynical. For Cat Boyd, co-founder of the green socialist group Radical Independence and an industrial organiser in Glasgow, corralling childcare as a women’s issue risks diminishing its significance. “It’s not just about affordability: if you scratch the surface, it’s all relative to work, to women being trapped in precarious, chronically low-paid employment. The cuts have all had a disproportionate impact on women.”
While there are structural reasons that keep women out of mainstream politics, Boyd adds: “It’s also that when you see a report from the House of Commons, with all that yelping and booing, it’s just not conducive to women’s participation.” And this is key: for all the heat and hurly-burly, the referendum campaign is taking place in a political landscape far removed from the “histrionics and cacophony” that led the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, to reveal recently that even seasoned female parliamentarians were put off from taking part in Westminster debates.
Women are at the forefront of this campaign in a way that is currently inconceivable in British politics. It’s not only that the deputy leader of the SNP, leader of Scottish Labour, leader of Scottish Conservatives (who is openly lesbian to boot) and shadow Scottish secretary are all women, a score that even the most world-weary couldn’t brush off as mere tokenism. It’s the fact that women are participating at every level of the campaign, often assisted in doing so by other women.
According to Curran, this is reaping the benefits of Labour’s campaign for 50/50 representation at the inception of the Scottish parliament in 1999. Though as Amy Liptrot, a writer from Stromness, tells me, for all the women at the top table in Edinburgh, “it’s not the case in Orkney. Here local politics is still dominated by middle-aged men”. It is also a generational shift. For younger women, visibility is the new normal. Yaqoob and Boyd are both in their 20s, as is Stirling-based Clyn Gallagher, editor of the Scots Politics website. “If you look at the press, you’d think the face of the campaign is a fat, angry cybernat, or identikit men in suits,” she says. “But if you actually look at the cross-party campaigners, and in Holyrood, you see women. The Scottish political scene is so much more inclusive and it’s still changing. It’s a more European model of women’s representation as standard.”
In the end, it would seem the real significance of the women’s vote is the potential for a changed political discourse that extends far beyond polling day. Lesley Riddoch, a seasoned feminist activist as well as independence campaigner, argues: “The story isn’t the official yes or no campaigns, it’s grassroots activism; women organising a coffee morning with no politicians, no slogans, no banging fists – just honest connection.”
As Jeane Freeman says: “Whatever happens after the vote, we won’t be able to put that genie back in the bottle.”
- POLITICO London Playbook, presented by Lloyds Banking Group: Name game — Glimmer of Brexit hope — Budget approaches
- POLITICO London Playbook, presented by ExxonMobil: Supply side crisis — ERG-onomics — Spanish foreign minister speaks
- POLITICO London Playbook: 5 days to go — What May does next — Meet the minister
Scottish independence debate: women hold the key far from Westminster have 1350 words, post on www.theguardian.com at May 2, 2014. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.