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.

Sara Sheridan: New Year’s Resolutions? New Life Resolutions more like it

Poor wee blog withering away on the vine, lonely and forgotten. But still loved, at least by me.

And thanks to friends, about to get a wee burst of life at year end. The last time, Sara Sheridan posted on this blog, it created an unedifying storm of comment.  Women has views, shock horror.

It’s fair to say that since then, Sara has been – using the X factor parlance – on a bit of a journey.  From dubious to interested to full on Yes.  She was one of the stars of Edinburgh Women for Indy, going wherever asked to speak and engage with women voters.  Often at a moment’s notice, despite her busy schedule.

Because in between all the politicking, Sara is still a writer and cultural commentator. And very good at both. She is on twitter @sarasheridan and on FB: sarasheridanwriter

Enjoy her New Life Resolutions. 

It’s that time of year – the time when you can’t help reviewing what you’ve been up to and thinking about where you might be going next.

2014 was a seminal year for so many people in Scotland. For me, it was revolutionary! I’ve never been interested in politics before. When the Referendum came along it set me alight – suddenly I was up late reading statistics, trawling articles for information and engaging with friends in debate. Some people I know stayed in either a Yes or No bubble but my family and friends came from both sides and I really enjoyed talking to the people around me about the issues.

2014 changed my life. It’s as simple as that.

On 19th September I was gutted. I cried every day for nine days about the No. I still find myself tearing up sometimes. That’s the risk you take when you fall in love with a dream. So that first horrible day, around me, as everyone struggled to rally I was moved by the way we pulled together. A No campaigning friend arrived with a bottle of whisky and we Yessers laid into it! Quite apart from the dreadful disappointment (and let’s face it, one side was always going to be disappointed) I found myself floundering. My life had changed. I had changed. I couldn’t imagine a way forward and I certainly wasn’t going to go back. I have a lovely life, a job I enjoy and a fabulous family but that wasn’t enough any more. In a way politics had made me greedy!

During the referendum I had written articles, appeared on TV and radio and occasionally spoken to meetings. Afterwards, the calls kept coming but somehow, it felt odd, almost purposeless, to pitch up to a morning radio show and air my opinions, when the possibility of real change had been removed. Within the Yes movement people rallied at different paces (some with astonishing speed) but I found myself going slowly. I’m not a party political person, never have been – I am driven by issues. While my husband and several of our friends joined the SNP, I knew that wasn’t for me. They had my vote but not my membership.

In a way I think I was heartbroken. The Referendum had been for me, a love affair with my country and it had given me passion for possibility of changing it for the better. It had set me alight. Like a teenager at the end of her first affair, I struggled to come back down to earth, to align what I had felt so passionately with the day to day reality I came back to when the party was over.

Gradually, I realised I had to find things I could do. Maybe not huge things, but things that were worthwhile. I discussed it with my husband and we made a vow (one that didn’t appear on the front page of the Daily Record) to boycott the organisations and businesses that we felt had behaved dishonourably during the campaign. I’m not talking about people that came out for No. People were entitled to do that. But supermarkets that claimed prices would go up, shops that said they’d fire people and relocate. We made a list and we’ve stuck to it – our shopping habits have changed.

The biggest shock of the Referendum for me, though, was the role the mass market media played and particularly the BBC. I had always trusted the BBC and from time to time I’d worked there. The ongoing bias infuriated me (it still does). We considered cancelling our TV licence. At first I thought this was a big ask – after all, I was now fascinated by politics, how would I do without the News (twice a night) and the rest of UK broadcast political programming? We switched off the telly though and tried it for a week and lo and behold we found we LOVED it. It was strange and very unexpected but not having advertising in the background and being able to pick and choose what to watch (because like many people we had had a lazy, if it’s on we’ll give it a go attitude). We also found we could pick up news stories online easily and in the end, we felt more informed, not less informed by boycotting the television. If you’d like to try it, there is a guide to the ins and outs of cancelling your licence (scroll down) on Wings:

Boycotts are positive consumer action but I also wanted to find ways of boosting the causes I agreed with as well as moving away from businesses and organisations with whom I did not. When the National came out I had a policy of buying 2 copies and leaving one in a local coffee shop or restaurant with the rest of the papers. I made donations to a few crowdfunders and also to the Common Weal. I became a joiner (not political parties) but other organisations, including Women for Independence, which I find completely inspiring.

I still don’t know the way forward. Not really. But I know how I want to vote (which is something I haven’t always known 6 months before the polling date) and I feel good about where my money is going and how it is being used. I suppose the Referendum has given me a sense of responsibility that I never had before.

All of this is not enough. I’m looking at other ways of making a contribution, of shifting my day to day life to let me take part and express myself politically. But it is a start. A step in a different direction and into a different life. I might not have the governance I had hoped for coming into 2015 but I have prospects and I have hope – a hope that change will come, more slowly than we might have liked, but come nonetheless.

And I’m sticking with it – in for the long run.

Help prevent the Million from becoming Missing again (1)

On the last day to register to vote before the independence referendum – Tuesday 2 September – a group of Yes campaigners visited Edinburgh college with their stall at lunchtime. We didn’t actually manage to set it up.

Instead, we spent the next hour and a half registering people to vote. Almost a hundred of them, men and women, young and old, of all nationalities and backgrounds, from all over Scotland, the EU and the Commonwealth.

And the whole time I kept thinking, what if we hadn’t come? No one else – neither the college management, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) nor even NUS Scotland – had bothered to do a voter registration drive with a group that was clearly vulnerable either to not being registered at all or being registered in the wrong place to actually vote on 18 September. They would have missed out on participating in Scotland’s historic vote.

That day, I ended up handing in over 100 registration forms in an 11pm dash to the registration office. Forms of people signed up at bus queues, on buses shuttling to and from some of Edinburgh’s most deprived schemes and by hanging about outside bingo halls, libraries, schools and delapidated shopping centres. Over the whole of the campaign, I alone supported hundreds of people to register to vote – and there were many like me.

Highlights included the 16 year old registering on his birthday, the Latvian woman who’d lived here three years and whom no one had told she could vote as an EU national (who came and said hello when she voted) and the twin 15 year olds, whose 16th birthday was two days away and in typical teenage boy fashion, faffed around with it all so much they nearly missed their bus. They made for fitting last registrants of the campaign.

Then there’s the woman who took an age to be persuaded to do so, partly because eyeing up the form, it was clearly a literacy step too far but also because she feared someone – whoever he was – knowing where she now was. Whether or not she actually voted, she gave herself the choice to do so, taking an empowering step forward in asserting herself and her sense of self as a person with rights. Actually, there were a lot of women like her.

There’s also the young woman who lived at the top of a block of flats who reckoned she didn’t know enough to be voting. When asked to say what she thought the referendum was about, she gave a powerful and eloquent explanation about power, control and responsibility. Not things I’d hazard, she’d had a lot of in her own life. I talked her through the form which she completed herself and then by arrangement, went back on Referendum day to walk her to the polling place. Although only in her 20s, her capacity had clearly been compromised by some sort of trauma in her life and if I hadn’t gone for her, she wouldn’t have come out to vote.

It wasn’t just registering people to vote. On that floor of those flats alone, we helped four people keep their right to vote by giving them postal vote application forms to complete. We also posted them for them.  And I went back to check if they needed their actual votes posted for them too. Why? Because the lift in the flats was often broken and when it was they were captive in their own homes, unable, either through ill health or age, to use the six flights of stairs, and reliant on neighbours to run messages and errands.

When I appeared with my pile of forms an hour before midnight, the helpful ERO sighed in exasperation. They had had people in these areas earlier in the year, knocking on doors, trying to persuade people to register to vote, he said.

But therein lies the problem. People in areas like these don’t open their doors to men – and women – in suits. They don’t trust them, they mistake them for suits they are trying to avoid. Folk in these areas have acute antennae, they smell officialdom a mile off and have spent most of their lives avoiding it. The missing million aren’t just missing from the voter roll or from actually voting, they are also missing from day to day life as we know it.

The Electoral Commission’s proposals to tighten the Code of Conduct for campaigners to prevent folk like me from handling completed registration and absent voting forms completely misunderstands the reasons why traditional registration campaigns have failed and why efforts during the referendum campaign succeeded. I’m trying to work out if this is accidental or deliberate.

What is being deployed is a sledge hammer solution to an acute but minor problem of electoral fraud. The changes are a knock on requirement from the introduction of unique identifier requirements to such forms. The chosen unique identifiers of date of birth and National Insurance number are the problem here. There is no doubt this is highly sensitive personal information which requires careful handling and it is indeed highly valuable to potential and actual criminals, because it provides a gateway to identification theft.

But had the authorities decided to use our other unique identifier – the National Health Service number we are given when we are born or when we register with the NHS – this would have been less of a potential problem. Stealing that number might get you a hip replacement but there’s much less potential for monetary fraud. So now, we are getting the wrong fix to the wrong problem, which incidentally potentially exists within officialdom as much as within political parties.

In any event, we already have laws in place to protect against such fraud: using them more effectively to capture the tiny minority of political campaigners who abuse the system would provide more of a deterrent.

I’m not sure people in the Missing Million were asked for their opinions in the Electoral Commission’s research. But the conclusions drawn and the measures proposed also suggest an attempt by the establishment to pull up the drawbridge on those who, for the first time ever, managed to breach fortress entitlement through the participation process.

Until and unless we invest far more resources than we do currently in citizenship at the earliest age – primary, not secondary school – and in voter registration and education, and at the same time, simplify the process with plain language and procedures, then these proposals take us back, not forward. The Million will become missing once more, which might be in their interests, but it certainly isn’t in ours.

The Referendum has effected change that we cannot allow to be unmade and attempts like this to do so must be resisted strenuously. So, here’s something for the 45% to focus its pent up energy and enthusiasm on. It might not galvanise quite as much as a rally with flag waving or a tub thumping speech made from a platform, but then it might also just have some practical effect.

The Electoral Commission’s consultation runs until Monday 20 October. Please respond.