From there to here

Today, some 200 women, mainly from the Lothians, will gather for a conference. There’s still time to join us.

And I’ve been asked to explain how we got from there to here. The truth?  I don’t know.

So let me set out what I do know.

Today’s Women for Independence conference has been organised by a handful of resourceful, redoubtable women. Most of them have never organised anything more than a family do before, never mind a conference for hundreds of women, lasting all day, with keynote speakers including Scottish Government Ministers, MSPs, Directors of national organisations, leading journalists, authors – all of them women and not all of them supporters of independence.

To say it’s been a stressful experience is probably an understatement. I’ve organised big events like this: they are a nightmare; a canvass of tiny detailed threads, which just as you think you’ve got it all neatly tied off, begins to unravel at crucial parts. But they have been amazing. And this small group of women approached the task with little fear and huge reserves of enthusiasm. They won’t realise it yet, but they have brought their life skills to bear and today will be a resounding success. Because of them.

And that there, in a nutshell, is how Women for Independence got from there to here.

Where is there? Well it all started with Carolyn Leckie, whose idea this was, way back at the turn of the year in 2012. She and I met in late January to discuss it: it was a brilliant idea to try to bring like-minded, independence supporting women together to do their own thing, to make a contribution in their own way to the nascent Yes campaign.

We met again at the end of March. She brought a few pals, I brought a few and ten of us ate, drank a bit and of course, the more wine we had, the more it all seemed like the best idea we’d ever had. A planning day in April/May at the Pearce Institute in Govan brought in a handful more women and we spent that time setting out a plan. Who would we be, what would we aim to achieve, how might we do that. And that plan, more or less, sustained us right through from 2012 to the referendum in 2014.

We would embark on a listening exercise – we had to try and work out what women thought. Our long collective history of political campaigning meant we knew that the official campaigns would struggle to reach women and women would be much more cautious about voting Yes, slower to convert to the idea.

In July, we set out aims and a sort-of constitution. We decided to officially launch in September 2012. We created a website; we launched with just over 100 women supporters and remarkable media interest.

We listened and we shared. We went on the marches and rallies. We made our presence known. We grew.

We challenged the male-dominated refrain which was already beginning to corral this debate within conventional headlines and narratives. We insisted women be invited to participate, in meetings, on media panels, in debates. We were challenged back – one of you come then.

From the beginning, we attracted women who had never before been involved in any political activity before. The appetite for local activity grew and groups were encouraged or simply sprung up on their own. By the end of the referendum campaign, there were over 60 that we knew of.

Edinburgh’s was slow to get going. After a series of false starts, a meeting was held in a space – not even a room – in the National Library on George IV Bridge. The organisers expected a handful to show: over 40 did. We agreed to focus on “adding value” to already organised Yes activity. Women for Independence started supporting the Super Saturdays, canvassing woman to woman, setting up street stalls to allow women to engage with us, organising drop-ins for local women in local cafes. It worked.

We were on panels everywhere. We talked in groups, in one to ones, to great big public meetings. Setting out the case why independence for Scotland was women’s best chance of having independence in their own and their children’s lives.

By being open, inclusive and welcoming, women got involved who had “never done this sort of thing before”. We supported Women for Indy national days of action by focusing on voter registration – doing school gates, outside where playgroups met, bus queues in areas where women (and indeed, men) traditionally did not vote. We stalked bingo halls – our free Yes dabbers – were scooped up by Yes and No alike. We kept going back, to the same areas, the same women, allowing them to move from No to Yes at their own pace. Our favourite day out was Porty prom, especially when the sun shined. Me and my Boy Wonder

In the summer, in common with groups all over the country, we delivered thousands of our leaflet, through letterboxes, directly into the hands of other women, many of whom didn’t want a Yes leaflet but took ours.

On the glorious, sunny Saturday before the vote, we had Elaine C Smith speaking back to back at meetings in Muirhouse and Craigmillar, encouraging women whom traditional politics had ignored ever since deigning to give them the vote, to choose hope and vote yes.

WFI cavalcade photo In between those meetings, we had a huge cavalcade of women in cars and vehicles criss-crossing the city’s schemes, with loud hailers, balloons and streamers, attracting well-wishers all the way.

And then it was all over. Or so we thought.

Since September 2014, Women for Independence, nationally and locally, has grown. A national conference of 1000 in Perth; over 3000 on our mailing list; over 80 women turning up to the first post-referendum planning meeting in Edinburgh; by Christmas 2014, Edinburgh’s Facebook group had doubled in size. And still they come.

With an appetite – a hunger almost – not to keep fighting the Yes No game but to campaign to change women’s lives. Right here, Right now. As we saw with the campaign to prevent a new women’s prison being built.

They want to learn. They want to know. They want different lives. They have taken out something stored away far deep within them, conditioned to believe that their roles are as nurturers, earners, deliverers, keepers, makers, managers, lovers, holding-it-all-together-ers, But only in a space where they can be controlled. And now they have found a political space for them where they can be all this and more, where they are in control and feel safe.

The referendum has awakened in many of them something of huge significance that none of us yet fully understands. That they do not have to be invisible. That they have skills and talents to contribute to the common weal. That they are worth something much more than society has decreed them so far.

And still they are more. Today there will be women attending who were not even involved at all in the referendum campaign – at least on the Yes side. Who have never done anything like this. Who are inspired and enthused and who will leave South Leith Parish Church even more so. Who will want to commune with other women, to keep on growing a movement, by women, for women,

By the end of March, 24 more such events will have happened, some big, some small; some political, some social; all created by women, for women. Engaging in their communities, reaching out, striving for change.

On 14 March, Women for Independence will hold its first ever AGM. Women members – nearly 1000 in less than a month – will vote for whom they want to represent them nationally. We are shifting from boundless, joyous, fractious organised chaos to begin the process of planting shoots and creating roots to ensure our continued growth.  It will still be boundless, joyous and on occasion, fractious.

We started there. We are now here.

We are Scotland’s fastest growing political movement. We are now focused – utterly – on working, on our own and with others, to push and prod at every opportunity for independence for Scotland’s women in every sphere of their lives.

We will give voice to those women who have rarely been listened to, ever. We will enable women to find their own voice and make it heard, We will raise our voices to make change happen, in small and big ways.

We came from there to here.  And we are not going anywhere but onwards.

Beware the snollygosters

It would appear there is an election in the offing. Voters might think it’s someway away, but not the parties.

Despite those astonishing Ashcroft and YouGov polls suggesting that it’s operation wipeout, Nicola Sturgeon hit the campaign trail in Glasgow yesterday, calling on her not insignificant pool of 93,000 potential activists, to chap every door between now and polling day. She’s right to take nothing for granted and her party would do well to heed the call: there might well be work to be done.

After all, there is truth in the cliché that the only poll that matters is the one on the day. And here’s Jim Murphy making a virtue out of hard work, cancelling any plans his MSPs might have had for a week half-term break, telling them all to get out and campaign like the election was a week to go. At least, he’s now admitting his party is in trouble, big trouble.

Both teams were out in my patch yesterday, but no sign of the Lib Dems in what is still a Liberal Democrat seat. That might be because they’re targeting a different demographic of voters in this constituency. With only 12 weeks to go, targeting resources, energy and time at the right groups of voters is key. Basically, Labour and the SNP are after the same ones.

I was surprised just how many times I was asked how I would appeal to this type of voter or that in my crash-and-burn attempt to become a candidate – it’s okay, there will be no gnashing and wailing, I’m nearly over myself.  To me, it’s self-evident where the SNP has to go to win seats all across the central belt. Indeed, the polls are like a great big X marking the spot: to the once staunch Labour vote must they go. Yes, the Lib Dem vote has collapsed in these same constituencies but think on this – it was never huge to begin with, except in one or two areas, nor is it so easy to track down in geographical or community terms.

Still not convinced? Well, why do you think Jim Murphy’s targeted campaign strategy is to prevent 190,000 Labour voters who voted Yes becoming SNP voters? This is the battleground where all those seats on those ginormous projected swings will stand or fall. And it’s vital that the SNP in its local domains gets this and focuses all its attention on those voters.

Because in those last few vital days of the independence referendum, whisper it, but the other lot had a better get out the vote strategy than we did. The No camp shifted to identified core vote and what’s known as knocking it up, far earlier than Yes did.  At the time, I thought this a weakness, a sign that undecideds who had been edging up the scale towards a Yes were now ours and that Better Together had given up on persuading them. Yet, the fact we were still out there trying to persuade them was the issue. The No camp had done enough to slow the snowball hurtling down the mountainside throughout September gathering momentum towards yes and actually halted it before it subsumed everything in its wake. As in all other referenda, a majority of those still umming and awing on the day broke for the status quo.

Here in Edinburgh, No’s get-out-the-vote activity was co-ordinated city-wide and run largely by Labour. It was organised, targeted and focused. And the fact that few of us noticed it at the time means it worked as the stealth operation it was designed to be. Anyone who thinks that it could not be replicated in Glasgow or in the towns all across the M8 corridor needs to think back to the 2012 local government elections. Despite what the polls were saying, Labour dug out a vote and I’m not sure we understand how yet.

Whether or not they will be able to snatch such victory from the jaws of defeat yet again is unclear. When the mood of a nation appears to have turned so decisively, the ability of a tribe – much depleted these days in any event – to descend onto streets en masse at 5pm on polling day and sweep every eligible adult along to vote is no longer a strength but a weakness. Adopting these tactics of old might just help deliver SNP MPs in their bucketload.

Conversely, does the SNP have to do anything other than surf the wave of public opinion? Does it need to know where its vote is going to come from at this election? I’ve often wondered what might happen in a control experiment of a local campaign staying at home – completely at home – to see if all those local leaflets, footslog, A boards and door chapping actually does make a difference, or if it really is all down to national campaigns, narratives, messaging and media dominance.

This though is not the campaign for the SNP to try such experiments. For, despite what the polls are saying, the difference between shaving Labour majorities wafer thin and actually winning the seat will come down to local candidates and campaigns: the SNP might have a shiny team of fantastic people lined up to fight this election, but Labour has its snollygosters.

Twitter introduced me to this new word this week. Apparently, a snollygoster is someone, especially a politician, who is guided by personal advantage rather than consistent, respectable principles. There are good people in the Labour movement – still.  Some of them are even MPs and they are now fighting for their political lives. And all the trappings that go with it. There are few career options out there for former politicians, not in Scotland; certainly, none so lucrative as the sinecure on the green benches. And that aside, what to do when your entire life has been politics, politics and more politics?

Some Scottish Labour MPs will have peered over the abyss and not liked what they see at the bottom. They will by snollygosting for all they are worth for the next twelve weeks and the SNP needs to match them if those poll numbers are to translate into wins.

Borgen might be cliched but that’s no reason not to like it

I think I’m going to be sick with the schmaltz…. Hackneyed, clichéd, simplistic nonsense

Every week, just as I am settling down for my double dose of Borgen, I am assailed by text opinions from friends with far better taste than me.

It is indeed hackneyed and clichéd, but I rather think that is the point.  And anyway, it feeds a need in my liberal leftie political soul which no amount of real politics can do.  Borgen – and before it, West Wing – reaches the parts of us that we crave in real politics but are never going to have fulfilled.  Though West Wing had far better dialogue, characters and more complex storylines.

At the end of every episode, I sigh contentedly, my idealistic self sated, and murmur “if only”.   And I’m not the only one.   This weekend, Edinburgh will be going gaga at Borgen live.  Pals and acquaintances are making a day of it, going along to meet the stars and watch live screenings.  It’s the political anorak’s equivalent of a trip doon the watter.  If I’d have been able to muster the childcare, I would have gone along for the ride.  Just for the thrill of it and to wallow in its charm.

To dismiss Borgen as clichéd ignores that politics is one big, fat cliché these days.  It is almost beyond parody:  one of the reasons Armando Iannucci claims to have wound up the Thick of It is that it became too hard trying to find ever more outlandish plots that bore no resemblance to reality.  The programme became an uncanny bellweather for real-time political fuck-ups and satirising political intrigue became increasingly redundant because the village was more than capable of writing these scripts for itself.

Idealistic crusading politician who resorts to the dark arts to save her stay in office?  Tick.  Good-looking, young, go-getting lefties vs old, male, pale and stale right wingers?  Tick.  Male politician who can’t keep his trousers up?  Tick.  Minister who gets uncomfortably close to arms trading companies?  Tick.  Over-ambitious politician with a dark secret in his closet and a penchant for risk-taking behaviour?  Tick.  Old vs New Labour?  Tick.   Attractive journalist having an affair with a succession of spin doctors?  Tick.  A claustrophobic political village where everyone knows everyone else and where some of their bodies are buried?  Tick.

Yep, they are all there but isn’t it rather reassuring that these narratives, characters and are?  It actually wouldn’t be art imitating life if they weren’t: these cliches and more abound in Scottish and UK politics.

Birgitte Nyborg, the PM character, is clearly a core part of the attraction of Borgen.  We’ve only ever had Margaret Thatcher as female political leader to cast as a role model and most of us hope we won’t ever see her likes again.  And the more we know about Thatcher as a mother and wife, the less frankly there is to like.

What Borgen shows are the struggles experienced by women like her, not just in Denmark but here too.  Combining a high-powered or even just a demanding career with the humdrum and challenges of family life is not easy.  Your work gets the best of you: managing to maintain a domestic equilibrium and feed the emotional and practical needs of your family become nigh impossible, as the current storyline about Nyborg’s daughter demonstrates.  She might get to be Prime Minister but her marriage fails, her family goes into meltdown and she ends up shagging the chauffeur on the kitchen floor in a drink-addled seeking of solace and physical comfort.  That might come across as cliché to some, but for many women it mirrors their own lives.  No woman gets to have it all and if she tries, well, it all ends in tears, if not for her, then those around her.

There is something unashamedly feminist about Borgen which is no doubt why it has so many female cheerleaders.  My favourite storyline so far is that of Sanne, the hapless private secretary who rather unexpectedly finds herself at the top of the civil service tree and hasn’t a clue what to do.  But she recovers from a shaky start and proves herself useful to the Prime Minister in ways only a thoughtful, rounded human – who is not so obsessed with politics – could.  It’s she who remembers to buy gifts for Borgen’s children on an extended trip to Greenland and who makes sure the children are entertained when left hanging about in the state offices.

But her card is marked by the chief of staff who does not like how she doesn’t fit his stuffy sense of what makes a good secretary or civil servant.  He can’t lay a finger on her unconventional ways until she gets caught in a compromising clinch in the office with Kasper, the PM’s spin doctor.  Kasper having rebuffed Sanne several times, exploits her crush on him to sate his own physical needs.  Needless to say, Sanne loses her job and nothing at all is said to him.  It might be hackneyed but it neatly echoes the experiences of many young women in similar positions.  And the fact that the storyline was developed right across the first season, interwoven and largely hidden by the bigger episode plots, is admirable.  Of all the characters, she is the one I felt for most.

Sanne makes a triumphant return in season two when Birgitte needs to be reminded of her earliest days in office.  And therein lies another important message for women: not just that some lessons are worth the wait in the learning, but also that strong women need other decent, strong women around them to help them get on, women who understand that there is more to the role of Prime Minister than simply being Prime Minister.  And there’s nothing simplistic nor nonsensical about that.