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Wimmin’s week in the referendum (1)

So, a risible piece in the Telegraph from Cathy Newman, the latest Scottish Social Attitudes survey focusing on the gender gap in voting intentions in the referendum and a keynote speech by Margaret Curran to women in the Better Together campaign today.  Hmm, am I the only one to doubt that serendipity is at work here?

This, then, is a blog in three posts and firstly, let’s have some fun dismantling not just Cathy Newman’s meanderings but also Professor John Curtice’s frankly offensive stereotyping of how women think and behave as voters.

If you missed it, the Telegraph piece is here, out before the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey in which Professor Curtice is involved.  Setting that aside for this post, I spent a frustrating evening trawling What Scotland Thinks? disaggregating findings from previous surveys along gender lines.  And the lesson?  Pretty websites do not make for easy analysis. But also, sometimes it pays for academics to heed their own research.

However, perseverance pays off, as there are some interesting findings on the key constitutional questions asked over the years as part of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey, especially when you compare women’s responses to those of men.

For example, women are equally in favour of independence as men even if it makes no difference to living standards. More women than men think Scotland’s economy would be a little better off with independence or that it would make no difference. Both genders favour taxation powers being given to the Scottish Parliament and women are more in favour of Holyrood making decisions about defence as well as welfare. Beyond the devo-max option then. And here’s something radical – more women than men favour welfare being devolved to local councils.

So for John Curtice to suggest that women are more pessimistic about the economic consequences of independence – as he does in the Telegraph article – is just wrong. They might be less confident about independence and somewhat worried about its impact but that’s different. Are they risk averse? Not on this evidence which suggests that women are keen on exploring a range of innovative options for delivering powers, services and resources in Scotland.

What then of Professor Curtice’s statement that “gender of candidates makes very little difference in elections”? Sorry, wrong again, even just from my personal experience. I know that the votes of women helped me to be elected as a councillor, including those of women who had never voted before, because they felt they had a candidate who reflected their interests and needs. This “role model effect” – that more women in politics might suggest to women that their interests will be better represented – was shown to exist in a US study in 2001* which found that   women candidates/representation have a positive effect on women’s participation at a mass level. They boost women’s interest, knowledge and sense of political efficacy. And while a more recent study did not find links to increased participation, comparing findings across a number of countries showed that when you have more women in Parliament, both men and women are more likely to have positive political attitudes. Finally, research for the Electoral Commission into the 2001 UK General Election found that female turnout to vote was higher than men’s in seats where women were elected. This study also found that participation more widely can be affected by gender: women were less likely to campaign/volunteer in seats with a male MP compared to in seats with a woman.  And it’s an international trend: countries with higher numbers of female Parliamentarians tend to have less of an activism gap between men and women in politics.

Professor Curtice has form with these lazy assertions – he made them two years ago. Professor Fiona MacKay suggested then that Curtice missed an opportunity to think about more plausible explanations for women’s uncertainty in their attitudes to independence than simply that they were “feart” and “deficient men”. Sadly, it is an opportunity he continues to miss and it is a shame that Cathy Newman approached him for an opinion, rather than Professor Mackay or indeed Dr Meryl Kenny, who both happen to be experts in this field.

You’d think that the woman who does Channel 4 News’s Fact Check blog might have checked more than one referendum poll to get a proper sense of women’s voting intentions. Leaving aside the most recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey findings, the trend in polling across the last six months suggests the gender gap – which admittedly is still, stubbornly there – is closing. And all the companies also agree that more women are still undecided on how to vote.

That is a good thing, not a weakness. Women want more information on independence and what it means for them, their families and their communities. On this, I agree with Margaret Curran and actually, would also concur that the Yes campaign needs to do more to get its message across to women.

For independence offers clear benefits to women – a living wage; better pensions; a written constitution to improve representation and enshrine equality. This last, in one step, would improve women’s lives. It’s no coincidence that in small independent countries like Finland and Denmark, women are more satisfied with life and think it is fairer for them. By contrast, Westminster isn’t working for women in Scotland – they still earn 12% less than men; they’ve been punished on state pensions for taking time off work to raise children; and of the £14 billion austerity cuts, nearly three quarters have hammered women and children. Margaret Curran suggests the childcare offer is “piffling”; Scotland’s women disagree with 29% of them thinking childcare would improve with independence.

I know from months now of engaging women voters, through the wonder that is Women for Independence – (subtitled “how to reach the other, really important parts of the population effectively on a shoestring”) –  that when the choice is presented between a fresh start towards a fairer, more equal society or things getting worse for them under the current system, they get it. They also get that this vote is not about Alex Salmond or any party but about them, their lives and their future. Those undecideds shift to voting yes, quite readily in fact.

And if you consider those research findings again, that women participating in politics act as a role model to encourage other women’s participation, you can see who might be “feart” and why.  Women for Independence’s experience has been exactly that. By offering a visible space for women to get involved in the referendum, we’ve attracted women who have never before done this kind of thing. Every week, new women join us and are willingly throwing themselves into the fray, empowered and enabled.  It’s joyous.

Which is why this is wimmin’s week in the referendum and why there has been an onslaught of information and myth peddling to stop the flow of women to yes and perhaps also, to stymie women’s participation in this campaign at all levels. Not least that it’s all to do with Alex Salmond…

Women for Independence is buoyed rather than cowed by all this activity.  They’re panicking, we’re not.  And in the last weeks of the campaign, we’ll continue to do what we set out from the start: to listen to women rather than shout at them; to treat them and their views with respect rather than misrepresent them; to consider them not as a homogenous group but as individuals with valid concerns; to give them information to enable them to make their own minds up, rather than trying to do it for them.

It’s disappointing that Professor Curtice and indeed, Cathy Newman can’t do the same.

*References available on request


Women for Independence National Day of Action

WfI voter reg day

All around Scotland today, Women for Independence will be reaching out to other women – particularly those whom traditional politics has found easy to ignore.  Our aim is simple.  To encourage more of them to register to vote in Scotland’s referendum on 18 September.

There are women, especially in marginalised communities, who have never voted.  Never seen the point.  Politics is something done to them, in which they feel they have little stake or little chance to influence things.  But when the referendum is explained, that it is not a vote for a party or a politician, but a vote for themselves, their families, their future and Scotland’s future, they get it.  And tend to sign up.

And while Women for Independence’s key aim is to encourage more women to vote Yes in the referendum, the grassroots movement for women, by women is also about enabling more women to participate in the debate, to make their voice heard.  The simplest and most obvious way of doing that is by voting on 18 September.

With just under a month to go until voter registration closes, it’s vital that more women are reached.  Today, local Women for Independence groups will be out in cities, towns and communities all over Scotland – why not pop along and give them a hand.

Find out what’s on in your area at the website and the Facebook page


Women are wending their way to Yes

You’ll forgive me for having more than a passing interest in how women are going to vote in the referendum.  In the last two years, there has been a concerted effort – largely by women and largely by women from both Yes and No sides – to ensure women’s voices are heard in the debate.  You might wonder that we really are in the 21st Century but women have had to fight, call out and argue for their right to be represented in media discussions and speaker panels in the referendum debate.  But we are winning, even if falling somewhat short of equal representation.  Apparently, one women’s voice will always do, while often two or more of men’s is considered requisite.

Carolyn Leckie’s inspired idea to create a space for women who support independence in which they could engage with other like-minded women has borne remarkable fruit. The aim was not to create an echo chamber but a safe space which operated differently from traditional party and campaign structures, in which women could gather and importantly, invite other women to participate in. The focus throughout has been on listening to other women and giving them a space of their own in which to explore their thoughts and concerns on the referendum debate.  But let’s be honest, the point of what Carolyn and the other founding members of Women for Independence (of which I was one) created was also to enable and encourage more women in Scotland to vote Yes. 

That it has worked suggests that it was sorely needed. Because of Women for Independence, there are women involved in this debate, campaigning, speaking out, engaging and still listening to other women’s voice who have “never done this kind of thing before”. Women for Independence now has 1,200 individual members from all over Scotland, with over 40 local groups ranged all over the country.

And while our focus is on the campaign to win independence for Scotland for the next nine weeks, we won’t be going away on 19 September. The work will continue – hopefully with women from all parties and none, and from both sides of the constitutional debate – to ensure women’s rights and equality feature high up the agenda in post-referendum Scotland. Yup, that’s a threat and a promise.

Increasingly, Women for Independence is attracting women who did not start out voting yes. They have travelled to the conclusion that women in Scotland will be better off with independence either through a long and dissatisfying journey with the Labour party or over the arid landscape of two years of constitutional debate. Some of them started as No voters, most as undecideds. 

But don’t just take my word for it, look at the polls. 

Frankly, during this campaign, the polls have been all over the place. The differential in voting intentions being recorded by different pollsters and across polling periods is often so volatile that the only safe conclusion is “eh?”

There have been a lot of polls and very little can be said about them that tells us definitively what on earth is going on in the minds and intentions of the Scottish people. Though John Curtice does his best.

James Kelly at Scot Goes Pop! has done a sterling job, not only in keeping up with polling activity, but also in providing essential analysis. In particular, he’s tried to get to the crux of why the polls are still showing big leads for no when any of us out on the doorsteps know it’s a lot less clearcut than they suggest.

Looking only at ICM’s polling results in 2014 (from the surveys run for the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday), two tentative conclusions can be reached.

ICM poll table 2014

First, the longer the debate continues and the more information they have, the less men seem to know.  Wasn’t it always thus?

ICM’s polling suggests that the closer we get to Referendum day, men are being pulled away from a previous yes voting intention and increasingly, don’t know how they will vote. The fact that they do appear to be moving to undecided means there is still hope: one in five of men’s votes is still up for grabs. Why anyone thinks excluding the don’t knows at this stage is a good idea is beyond me.  Every second voter I canvass is a genuine undecided either because they cannot make up their mind or simply haven’t thought about it.  Read that last bit again, Yes and No stalwarts, and weep.

Second, women are largely where they started the year, having been on a bit of a journey in the last few months. Having reached a low point of support for independence in May, women do now seem to be moving towards a yes vote.  And there are still plenty who have yet to make up their minds. ICM suggests that when they do, they are largely deciding to vote yes. Again, these undecideds are still genuinely undecided for the reasons outlined above. Few can be categorised as not voting because most I meet absolutely intend to do so. Once they’ve had a chance to think about it and get hold of information because they’ve not had anything much, is a frequent refrain. (Note to Yes and No folk – try harder!)

There are many factors at play, of course. But the visibility of a campaign working so enthusiastically at the grassroots to encourage more women to vote yes, will have made a contribution. When women who support independence get the chance to expound the benefits of independence to other, undecided women – benefits for themselves, their families, their communities and the country’s future – those messages resonate.

Moreover, the issues matter. Women have been most affected by Westminster’s cuts. They are concerned about the future of the welfare state and NHS in Scotland as they see the privatisation of the NHS South of the border. More and more women are realizing that only independence guarantees a fairer and more prosperous future for them and their families.

Last week, I met a woman in her thirties, who despite the draw of a warm, balmy summer evening, sat on a hard seat in a village hall for two hours and listened. I watched her throughout and she was listening hard to everything that was being said: her attention did not waver, not even for a minute. I spoke to her at the end and asked her why she had come.

With tears shining in her eyes, she replied that she wanted to make sure she was making the best choice for her children’s future. That how she voted really mattered and she wanted to make sure she got it right. She did not want her children to be denied a better future because she got her vote wrong. She has been undecided throughout, swinging from undecided to yes, back again and over to no, before landing up firmly back on the fence for the last month or so. Since then, she has immersed herself in the debate, in gathering and reading information, on turning out to meetings like the one I met her at, because she absolutely wants to make sure she is doing the right thing by her children. 

She’s finally made up her mind.  She’s voting yes.



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