Nae man can tether time nor tide

Yesterday I met a redoutable 87 year old woman who was the primary carer of her 90 year old husband of 63 years. We chatted about the weather and her garden before getting down to business. Which party does she normally identify with?  That would be Labour. She and her husband had voted Labour all their days, and voted No in the referendum, despite the exhortations of her Yes-daft “laddie” (he’s in his fifties). And who would she be voting for in the UK election in May? That would be the SNP. Or not exactly the SNP but “thon wee lassie”. She meant Nicola Sturgeon.

She had never been a fan of “him” she said but this lassie was of different mettle and there was a lot to like. She’s shaking things up a bit and with her in charge, the SNP will shake up a whole lot more, down there and here. We need things all shook up, she reckoned. And I like how she’s putting women first, she said.

Anyone wondering what difference Nicola Sturgeon has made in the early days of her leadership of her party and of Scotland, that’s it there in a nutshell. For every person opting positively to choose the SNP over Labour in this Westminster election, there is a minority – a significant minority, I’d hazard – who have been attracted to the SNP and what it stands for because of its leader and what she stands for. They like what they’ve heard so far and it shows in the polls too.

Most still show a continued gender gap among those who intend to vote SNP in May (such as in this Survation poll for Unison Scotland), but some show that gap having narrowed considerably (the most recent YouGov Scottish poll).

The First Minister has made no secret of her desire to deliver equality for women in Scotland. Her argument – that if you are good enough and work hard enough, being a woman should be no barrier to achieving success at work and in life – is the most explicit commitment made by any party leader in post-devolution Scotland to creating a fairer, better society for women. Implicit in her approach is the need to remove any barriers and plenty still exist.

Not least within her own party. Which explains the resolutions on the agenda for debate at the party’s Spring conference next weekend to create formal mechanisms to ensure a higher number of women candidates standing for the SNP and more of them elected.

I should declare an interest here – I’ve been a longtime proponent within the SNP of positive discrimination measures. The last time the party debated it (in 1998 I think), I was on the pro side of zipping male and female candidates on the regional list selections. That debate for me was characterised by the number of bright, young women speaking against the idea, adamant that they would get there under their own steam, thanks very much. Only one of them ever did.

So bravo for the new party leadership (and I include in this the NEC) for bringing the issue back for further, long overdue debate. This time, I hope the measures win the day.

Last time round, such is the contrary nature of the SNP membership, it more or less zipped anyway with a significant number of women elected to the Scottish Parliament. But without the issue being kept in focus, the numbers slipped. And have never been anything like balanced, let alone equal, for Westminster and local election selections.

As ever, there will be opposition. The same old, tired old arguments will be trotted out. It should be the best candidate who gets selected – which assumes that is usually a man – and there will no doubt be a coterie of women who shore that up by insisting on the right to do it for themselves, not wanting – ever – to feel they were chosen just because they are a woman.  It won’t be until they are rejected as a candidate precisely because they are a woman that they will get it.

The party can rightly point to the progress made in recent times. There are more women than ever before selected for Westminster seats and that’s testament not just to the formidable talent in the ranks of approved candidates but also to the willingness of local party organisations to select the best person to represent them in their constituencies in this contest.  But women still make up under 40% of the total candidates standing for Westminster and it will only be if we get into landslide territory on May 7th that signiificant numbers of them will be elected.

More women have joined the SNP creating a much more balanced membership; it has a 50-50 Cabinet; it has committed to changing the face of public boards and is encouraging private sector and charitable ones to do the same. All of this has come about – partly – because it has a female leader, because of what the party now stands for under her leadership and the policies it espouses.

A breakthrough was signalled at last party conference, when despite fierce opposition, a resolution was passed on gender balance in public life. I sat at home watching it all unfold and cried buckets at the conclusion, for it represented such a milestone.

Next Saturday, the SNP has the chance to show that it’s not just its leader who has mettle. That this is a party in tune with the mood abroad, prepared to lead on changing the nature of society by beginning with reforming its own structures. Before voting on this vital resolution and all the amendments, delegates should pause and consider where Scotland stands, what their party – and especially, their leader – stand for and where she and they want to lead their country to.

The SNP is at a juncture – is it thirled to it (and Scotland’s) past, stuck in the present or focussed on the future and creating a different party (and country) for the next generation to inherit? After all, a better, fairer society for all means exactly that, in all structures and circumstances.

To coin a phrase, moments like this in party histories are like “poppies spread”. They can choose to “seize the flower” before “its bloom is shed”.  And in doing so, delegates might want to remember that “nae man can tether time nor tide”.

Send sexism off in the General Election campaign

Women for Indy send off sexism pledge

Yesterday, Women for Independence launched a campaign to root out sexism and send it off in the General Election campaign.  The movement – of which I am a part but not the only woman involved nor a leader nor a spokesperson – believes that everyone should welcome and foster the increased participation of women in democratic life, whether they campaigned for a Yes or a No vote in the referendum.

“Women should be able to raise their heads above the parapet without being a target for sexism or personal abuse.” you’d think that might be a given in 21st Century Scotland but apparently not. Already women have been targeted; some have been subjected to online abuse like this: “She’s what you might call a political prostitute whoring herself to whoever will have her.” (about a female SNP candidate).  There’s also a hideous cartoon doing the rounds grotesquely caricaturing a prominent Labour MP in the same vein.

Apparently, some women are carpet bagging and careerist now some activists have decided to do what men in their parties have been doing for generations – seeking to become candidates and MPs.

Frankly it’s unacceptable and it’s why Women for Independence is calling on all parties, all party leaders, candidates, activists and party staff to sign up to its campaign and code of conduct.  Already, the campaign is delighted to have secured the backing of the SNP and the Scottish Greens – it is hoped that Scottish Labour, which is at the heart of a great cross party initiative in the Scottish Women 50 50 group, will follow suit.  And of course, the Scottish Conservatives and Liberal Democrats too.

The campaign calls on everyone involved or going to be involved in the UK General Election campaign in Scotland to pledge that:

  • they will conduct a democratic, respectful campaign that concentrates on political issues
  • no personal abuse will be directed at rivals
  • women will not be objectified or subjected to sexist language or behaviour
  • where there are panel discussions, all parties will insist on gender balance
  • where abusive or sexist behaviour occurs, parties will make clear that they do not tolerate it from their members, staff or representatives

The referendum saw women – of all ages, backgrounds and demographics – get involved in participative politics to an astonishing and probably unprecedented degree in Scotland.  It is in the interests of all who believe in democracy to ensure that this Westminster election campaign leads to even greater women’s participation and that women do not get put off ever getting involved again.

You can support the campaign by tweeting and sharing the pledge on your social media and if you’re a candidate sign up and say you’ve done so publicly.

Scotland’s women agree – they haven’t had a fair deal from Westminster

That’s not just me saying so. It was the verdict of 1000 of Scotland’s women polled on behalf of Women for Independence by Survation.  When asked which institution – the Scottish or Westminster Parliament – gave them a fair deal, nearly four in ten (38.6%) said they didn’t think Scottish women got a fair deal from Westminster, while a clear majority believed the Scottish Parliament did give them a fair deal (42% compared to 17%). 

Dissatisfaction with Westminster was highest among women aged 55 to 64 at nearly 50% (47.4%), but women aged 45 to 54 were also deeply unhappy with their lot under Westminster (43%) as were young women aged 16 to 24 (40%). Women from Glasgow were also most likely to think they hadn’t had a fair deal (46%) as were women on lower incomes (43.2% of C1 women).

It’s not hard to see why women in Scotland take such a dim view of Westminster. Women and their children have been hardest hit by austerity cuts. Nearly three quarters of the £15 billion in cuts made by Westminster to benefits, tax credits, pay and pensions have been taken from women’s incomes. And research published recently by the Scottish Government shows that the pay gap between men and women has got worse: women now earn on average 17% less than men. If that wasn’t bad enough, the older you are, the worse the pay gap becomes. It’s the ultimate insult for a life spent striving.

And older women have been hit hard by UK government actions too, not least with the raising of the retirement age, paltry increases in pensions and many still facing smaller pensions due to the “wee stamp” National Insurance issue. Rising fuel costs plunge many into fuel poverty, forced to choose between eating and heating. They are looking forward to an old age scrimping and scraping after a lifetime of trying and striving to improve their lives.  Little wonder they don’t think they’ve had a fair deal from Westminster.

Successive Labour and Tory governments have failed the women of Scotland. They might think they’ve got away with treating them unfairly, but Scotland’s women are on to them. During this campaign, Labour has promised women a wee bit “better” or a little “more”. Not good enough,  Women are entitled to the same, to equal shares, to justice.

The fact that women participating in the poll were much more likely to think they have had a fair deal from the Scottish Parliament shows the difference that can be made when Scotland’s women get the governments they vote for and decisions are taken much closer to home. Some of those currently trying to decide whether to vote yes or no might want to ask themselves which system of government best serves their interests?  Do they vote no and stick with a Westminster system dominated by male elites which has patently failed to give women a fair deal? We’ve had the Equal Pay Act for over 40 years and still the goal of being paid the same as men is as elusive as it was when the legislation was introduced.  

There is of course an alternative. By voting Yes, women will have made the choice to seek change in their lives, not just for themselves but for future generations of women.  The potential for far-reaching change is huge and independence can deliver real benefits and gains for Scotland’s women.  We all just have to get the message across to women that they exist.  Helpfully, Women for Independence has produced a great leaflet which does just that, setting out how women will get a better deal, can have better representation and rights, have a healthier nation, welfare that cares and a better start in life.  Independence offers the opportunity to live in a wealthier, fairer Scotland. Independence can ensure that all women get a living wage, guaranteed pension increases, equal rights in law, free childcare for under 5s and improved carers’ benefits. 

There’s no coincidence that in small independent countries like Finland, Denmark and Norway, women are more satisfied with life, the income gap is much smaller and life is fairer. Women who live in such countries think they get a fair deal – we can have one in Scotland too. Scotland’s women are clear they haven’t had a fair deal from Westminster – but they can get a fair deal in the future by voting Yes.