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.

The shift is on

At various points in the referendum campaign, I’ve felt the sands begin to shift. At the turn of the year, as folk looked ahead in a spirit of optimism and renewal, some clearly made their minds up and the polls registered an upturn in favour of Yes. But most still seemed to be waiting. Some were obviously waiting for Labour to announce its grand plan for new powers; the damp squib that was on offer marked the end of the dalliance for the disappointed, who decided it was time to go for bust. The polls inched forwards again.

Then in June, more women began to make up their minds and were opting for Yes. I thought we were in touching distance of the tipping point, it was oh so close.  But I hadn’t reckoned on the menfolk stopping short and even, hot tailing it back over the undecided boundary. July arrived and movement was becalmed.  Everyone was stuck where they were – for over 65s, they were stuck right where they had begun, firmly, implacably, instinctively No.

So there was nothing else for it but to roll up the sleeves and get on with it. The only bright spot was the visit to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games. All those Yes Windaes blousily proclaiming affiliation, suggested a stirring across the city. Yet, there was nothing like it in Edinburgh.

And over the summer, even as the forgotten parts of Scotland awakened to opportunity and in their droves, began coming out for Yes, and registering to vote often for the first time, and Labour supporting areas began to settle their will, still it all seemed like too big a challenge.  Some in the aspirational areas got it and wanted it but those who had strived to get where they are, seemed determined to hold on to what they had, ignoring the doubt gnawing away inside of them that what little they had was always within the gift of the more powerful to sweep away. No firm foundations see?

But what didn’t make sense – still doesn’t – is the chasm still being recorded by some polls. This was going to be a skoosh for the No lot, if you looked at what some pollsters were saying.  Others showed the gap closing, but slowly. Subsidence really, with the odd crack and fissure beginning to show: 20 and 30 somethings still eachy peachy or narrowly Yes; under 25s shifting across (but what do they matter anyway, so few of them vote, some might arrogantly assume); women beginning to nail their colours to the mast, more of them – still – to Yes. Seismic activity then but nothing worth shouting about.

And then No ramped it up.  Every day, an onslaught. Darling at his managerial best in the first debate; 200 Brit celebrities declaring their love for Scotland and pleading with us not to go; Gordon Brown, entering the fray for the first time since the last time; this one, that one and the other one slamming the idea that Scotland “can” never mind “should” be independent; analysis here, there and everywhere, but always that of the Naysayers proclaimed more loudly; and always, the finger of doom pointing down at us, whirling myriad details in our heads until they birled.  On the doorsteps, the fear mongering on the minutiae was parroted back.  People were absorbing it all and it appeared to be working. No’s splat approach to multiple targets seemed to be resulting in a lot of it sticking.

In one day alone last week, we were treated to 120 business leaders telling us why we shouldn’t vote Yes, Archie McPherson telling us to vote No, and a campaign broadcast showing the Woman who Made her Mind Up to make it a No.  In one, single day.

That broadcast spoke volumes. The reason it was so narrowly targeting the demographic of the busy, working mum who hadn’t had time to sit down and think about how to vote and therefore, was still making her mind up?  Because the No camp reckoned this was the only one left to target: all other boxes had been ticked, this was the only place left to hoover up to cement the victory.

But how the No campaign behaved last week spoke volumes to its weaknesses and flaws. Darling was monstered in the TV debate by the First Minister. I have watched and rewatched the closing remarks. Alex Salmond is majestic, passionate, emotional and visionary, winding it all up to a crescendo. Alistair Darling is broken, stumbling over his words, mumbling down into his papers, barely making eye contact with the autocue. He had nothing to offer.

And with his shambolic performance, the cracks in the foundations became much more visible. They had already assumed a victory, they had already filmed the advert, they reckoned it was in the bag. Would they have put that risible broadcast out if they had even for a moment doubted that Darling would do it?  Of course not. But it was the only film they had, and they had to go with it. Dotting the is and crossing the ts was all that was needed, keeping the announcements coming, reducing the final weeks of the campaign to white noise.

It’s a shame the Scottish people appear not to be listening anymore nor following the script. Because last Monday, with that debate, everything changed. Suddenly, the Scottish people are not liking being telt the ending of this long running series. Telt by everyone what to do and how to vote, the people appear to be lifting their eyes from the detail of dread being fed them on a daily basis and looking at the big picture.

And crucially, looking not at the past, nor even at the present, but thinking about the future. As the person in the debate audience asked, if we are better together, why are we not better together now?  A million heads nodded in agreement, thinking of the electric bill recently received, the 1% pay rise that’s paid for nothing, the bedroom tax eating into their incomes, their graduate son unable to get a proper job, the nursery costs going up again, the pension rise resulting in more council tax and rent to pay, the prospect of Christmas and how to pay for it all beginning to loom. Doesn’t feel much like better together really – not when you stop to think about it, rather than just read what they tell you.

The start of a new academic year also focuses minds. Proud parents, grandparents, godparents, aunties and uncles seeing off wee ones for the very first time, wondering where all the years go when looking at the gangly teenagers try to strut their stuff into secondary, realising just how empty that nest is going to be after they’ve packed up all that their fledglings own and delivered it to a city far away. What about them, what will their future hold?  “I can dress myself”.

Whatever is behind it, whatever is motivating it, there is a shift, a change in people’s attitudes and it would appear, their voting intentions. Those undecideds aren’t breaking the way the polls have foretold; women are making their mind up but not as the No lot hoped; instinctive Nos who have clung to their default position for nearly two years now have changed their minds.

You can smell it, taste it, sense it.  But most of all, you can see it.

When I first moved to Edinburgh 15 years ago, I was astonished that only a handful of window posters went up at election time. For three elections, nothing. Then in 2007, Edinburgh decided it was time to flash the colour of its knickers, the ones it may or may not have been wearing under its fur coat all this time. An SNP poster here, an SNP poster there. Something was happening:  by polling day, there were houses loud and proud, proclaiming that the folk here were up for bold and different and change.

If you live in Edinburgh, take a walk through your neighbourhood today and count the posters and Yes stickers.

The waiting is over.  Scotland is making its mind up. The shift appears to be on. “It’s the only chance we’ll get to change things”.








Why No’s video appeal to undecided women won’t work

Normally in my house, a pot of lentil soup is made every week. It’s been a staple of both boys’ lives, all their lives, and they love it. I make better lentil soup than anyone they know. I learned how to from my Gran.

It’s been a rarity in recent times so on Monday, I decided to fix that. A pot was duly made. I burnt it. I burnt lentil soup. Boy Wonder, somewhat in awe at my spectacular fail, is now seriously questioning what has happened to his mammy. So am I.

And I’m writing this, surveying the wreckage that is my house.  I hoovered at the weekend but not that you’d notice.  Since then, there have been so many folk piling in and out with deliveries and the like that it looks like I’ve not hoovered for months. There are piles of clothes everywhere, dried, en route eventually to bedrooms (wardrobes and drawers might be stretching it a bit).  

There are bits of paper. Hunners of them. In strategically placed piles on every surface.  And boxes.  Of leaflets, materials, and other campaign paraphernalia.  I try heroically several times a week to clear the dining table only for it to fill up again with campaign flotsam and jetsam almost immediately.  We eat in whatever corner happens to be bare at the time.

But I know this is not a normal woman’s house.  Women everyday open their doors to me and their houses gleam and sparkle. There is order. There is not a speck of dust to be seen.  Women – even busy working women – still take pride in their home. They might grumble about the division of labour, that even though they too work full time, sorting school bags and shopping and washing and ironing still largely falls to them. But they do it, even grudgingly, Because home is where the heart is, in all senses.  

And what will these women – the undecided women still making their minds up how to vote on 18 September – take from the No camp’s video?  

Forget the words, it’s the images that will stay.  Here’s a woman who sits down with a cup of coffee in amongst the crumbs and debris of the morning rush hour.  And then gets up to go to work without shifting a dish or wiping a surface.  She might be a woman I can identify with, but not them.  hey’d never dream of leaving their homes in that state. They’ve missed their target audience completely, probably because the video was made by men. 

For they’ve also managed to patronise these women. Suggesting they don’t really like their husbands and partners, and worst of all, think poorly of their children – all the women I engage with speak with pride and love when asked about their families. That the reason they’ve not yet made up their minds is because they’re bored with the referendum dominating all conversations – not my experience – or because they don’t know enough about everyday politics to come to an informed decision – well wide of the mark, I’m afraid.

Many who have yet to make up their minds are indeed waiting for a quiet moment, to sit down with all the information and go through it, and decide. They know there are only a few weeks left but that’s enough time.  Until then, they carry on, carrying on.  Absorbing the mood music all around them, chatting with friends and family, raising queries, listening to those they trust.  But also engaging with folk – like me – who bother to pitch up on their doorstep, who don’t evangelise, who empathise with the big decision they have to make, and who listen to them and try to offer a factual account of the ifs, buts and maybes. I explain I come from a Yes position but I try to be honest and acknowledge that there are unknowns.  

But I also set out the bit No don’t want them to hear. That a No vote might not offer the best of both worlds actually. That women haven’t had a fair deal from Westminster. That there are known risks from voting No – £5 billion cuts in the next two years to the block grant will put spending on public services they care about under strain like never before. 

None of that subtlety was evident in their video. In fact, it contained downright lies. There is no uncertainty over pensions: the DWP itself has said that folks’ pensions are safe. Just as if they chose to go and live in Spain now, as ex-pats in an independent Scotland, the state pension will still be paid.  Private pension providers based in England already pay out pensions to people living in other countries, why would they not for Scots in the future?

Many women I’ve listened and chatted to are worried about their children’s future. So I give them the astonishing fact, supported by independent research, that this generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings is likely to be the first generation ever to be worse off than their parents. Thanks to austerity and the running up of huge levels of government debt, there’s very little left for them.  They will be paying for it all, all of their adult lives. They are hurting already and that’s why so many of them – and the polls now show that a majority of voters in their twenties are now likely to vote yes – are choosing the one opportunity offered by independence for a better, different future.  I encourage these women to talk to their sons and daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and find out why they are voting yes and to think about that when they come to make up their own minds. 

I also encourage them to listen to and read other women’s stories, of women who didn’t start out yes but arrived there. To see if there is anything they can identify with from what they say.

Everyone on the Yes side is having a lot of fun with this No video. David Greig came up with a brilliant mini-play/pastiche on twitter last night. Robert Florence’s take on the messaging is laugh out loud funny (but also hits hard at its inherent sexism). 

But the most powerful counter to it comes from women themselves.  If you do one thing today, encourage undecided women you know to watch Women for Independence‘s video.  It’s a simple, direct appeal to women of all ages, from all parts of and communities in Scotland to make their voices heard. There’s no insulting of women’s intelligence, no misleading on the issues, there’s not even any crumbs needing cleaned up,