Anne McTaggart MSP looks at the impact of the referendum campaign on women, the economic difficulties often disproportionately borne by women, and the opportunity to engage and support women in delivering political change.
The last couple of years have been momentous for Scottish politics, with the independence referendum debate reigniting the political interest of the nation. All across our country, from all walks of life, people and their families have been engaging with politics on a scale perhaps never seen before. At kitchen tables and offices, community centres and school gates, the independence referendum, it seemed, was all that was talked, argued and debated about.
As a woman and mother, I was particularly heartened to see so many of my female friends, colleagues and relatives arguing with conviction and passion their thoughts on Scotland as a nation, and why they believed that a No vote would secure the best future for Scotland. I was particularly struck by how different the arguments made by these women varied from their male counterparts.
Men, it seemed, were more direct in their decision making. According to most of the polls in the run up to the 18th September, men did indeed make their minds up far more quickly than women. That correlates with what I experienced on the doorstep during the campaign. Men were extremely forthright in putting their views forward, with women perhaps needing a further discussion before revealing their opinion. That, however, did not mean that women had not made up their minds, simply, that they did not want to share their views so readily. One of the reasons for this, I believe, was the campaign itself.
Both campaigns were led by men. Most of the representatives of each campaign on television, radio and print media were men. As a result, the referendum debate had a very masculine feel, and many women I spoke to felt shut out, or intimidated by the sometimes aggressive nature of the campaign, feeling that their voice would not be heard. At the many Labour Women meetings conducted during the referendum and the many campaign stops I undertook, a great deal of women spoke of their fear in advertising their desire to vote No, in fear of abuse, intimidation or vandalism of their property should they display posters in their windows.
Some even said that when asked by family and friends of their voting intention, they claimed not to have made their minds up, in case of heated dispute with those closest to them, who were perhaps voting on different lines. However, once assured that their views would be truly heard, it was women who made the most forensic, measured and passionate arguments I heard for staying part of the United Kingdom.
The key concern amongst most of the women I spoke to throughout the campaign was Scotland’s economy and the widespread apprehension that there simply wasn’t enough certainty in the Yes campaign’s plans to enter a formal currency union, which had already been ruled out by the rest of the UK. This issue seemed to permeate all others, leading to a general cynicism about the Yes campaigns plans as a whole.
Many mothers, like me, reasoned that without guarantees over currency, many of the White Paper’s proposals about childcare and education were simply uncosted and undeliverable and that the perceived willingness to get more women back into work would not translate to policy. Many were of the view that it would be their children who would pay the price if the country should fall into financial hardship. None of these questions were answered adequately by the Yes campaign over 2 years, so women voted in their droves to reject the risks of separation.
It was always my belief, therefore, that the referendum polling was not perhaps as accurate as the Yes campaign would like to have believed. The silent majority, many of them women, expressed their quiet scepticism for Independence, never advertising their view in the public sphere, some not even to family or friends. The Yes campaign strategy seemed to be that those who shout loudest will win the day. Women in particular know that statement to be untrue and so, on the 18th September, the settled will of the Scottish people was to stay as part of the United Kingdom. But, as we know, a vote for no is not a vote for no change.
Over the last couple of weeks, the Scottish Labour party has published its proposals to build a fairer, more equal Scotland, a couple of which relate directly to women and their lives.
In an announcement a week or so ago, Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont announced a radical shake up in childcare provision in Scotland, giving a free nursery place to every mum who wants to go to college to gain the skills and experience necessary to get into the jobs market. This £35 million investment in mothers across Scotland will allow women to gain employment, give their children the best start in life and is a policy which can be delivered under the current powers of the Scottish Parliament, laying further waste to the claims by the Yes campaign during the referendum that the only way to secure fairer and better childcare in Scotland was to vote for separation. It has already received the backing of children’s charities such as Children 1st, Barnardos and Save the Children, who all recognise that the Labour party is putting childcare provision at the top of the political agenda.
Education spokesperson Kezia Dugdale MSP has also visited Finland, to see how the much lauded Scandinavian model of childcare operates, and to determine what Scotland can learn from it. In Finland, the total cost of childcare is no greater than 10% of the median wage with no family paying more than £203 per month, meaning that women are never burdened by excessive childcare costs when deliberating on entering the jobs market. The equivalent cost in Scotland is around three times that, and the Scottish Labour Party has announced that it is seeking engagement with organisations like Save the Children and others to explore the best possible approach to tackling this issue in the most affordable way possible.
Kezia has also led a cross party discussion on greater representation of women in the Scottish Parliament, establishing the 50:50 campaign, which seeks to have a gender balance not only at Holyrood, but on local councils and public boards. It is my view that this would only strengthen our public bodies, ensuring a female perspective on every issue of public life and allow these institutions to make more rounded and better informed decisions. Labour has always been well ahead of the other mainstream political parties on this issue, but there is still much work to be done to ensure that women are more fairly represented in public life.
We as a Party have a great challenge facing us over the next few years. Many still face day to day difficulties, particularly financial. A great deal of those will be women, particularly those who feel that the current system does not lend them a voice. The independence referendum offered all parties a great opportunity to engage, not only with those who have become disaffected, but those who have never engaged before.
We have a duty as the Scottish Labour Party to continue the debate, and to deliver policy that helps our most vulnerable. I am confident that our Party has begun that important journey. The proposals announced already would make a huge difference to the lives of women in Scotland. I urge you to join me in supporting them.