Natalie McGarry: Time for female views to be heard

FOCUS groups and second guessing, writes Natalie McGarry, are not methods of engaging women in a vital debate

More women are needed in Scottish political debate, says Natalie McGarry. Picture: TSPL

Women are not a minority group. At 52 per cent of the Scottish population women, should be the driving force of social attitudes. However, that influence of simple majority is impeded by a minority in representation; in the media, in political organisations, civic Scotland and elsewhere. Women, quite simply, have poverty of influence.

We are living through a period of intense self-examination and endless discussion of minutiae which will determine the democratic legacy we will leave to future generations, and this is too important to allow the wrangling over dry statistics by pale men in suits to wring the neck of good and proper discourse.

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If we want a democratic settlement which best reflects the attitudes of the tapestry that comprises our society, we must ensure that all groups contribute fairly and equally to the debate. There is an onus on both the Yes and No campaigns to seek to redress the lack of minority groups, women and the disenfranchised in crafting that narrative.

For YesScotland and their political and civic partners, the regularity and reinforcement of gender imbalance in attitudes to independence must be galling. If facts are chiels that winnae ding, the Yes campaign must have bats instead of bells in the belfry.

It is only recently – and perhaps as a result of work done by pro-independence campaign groups like Women For Independence – that much cognisance has been given to data imbalance. Lazy psephological – and I use the word advisedly –babble about “Salmond’s women problem” and suggestions that women are desirous of the protective arms of a big burly UK are, frankly, insulting. These have been blown apart by the data in the most recent Social Attitudes Survey. This isn’t a Salmond problem; it is a Yes problem.

We are a long way from the ultimate and definitive poll, but given the existence of YesScotland for almost a year, the failure to make any real impact upon women’s attitudes to independence should prompt a thorough assessment of the relationships and understanding between women and the Yes campaign.

Women have genuine questions about the independence debate and women are not a homogenous group. Women voters are not just important to the Yes or No campaigns simply by their sheer number, we are important because we form the backbone of our families, our communities and societies.

If YesScotland want to offer women the real opportunity to be front and centre in the determination and constitution of our future, they have to be much more proactive. It is simply insufficient to aim simple narratives about childcare and welfare toward women and hope they find a foothold. If the Yes team wants women to engage with the campaign it needs to talk to real women, and they need to do this quickly.

Why women are not currently in favour of independence or as engaged in the debate are questions which only women can answer. Women For Independence is currently doing just that; asking thousands of women across Scotland for their thoughts and concerns on independence, and listening to what they need to hear from the debate.

A concerted effort must be made by the Yes campaign to ditch focus-group led initiatives and instead engage with women across the spectrum; from the impressive women at the forefront of the trades unions movement and business women, to stay-at-home mums and part-time workers.

We need to ditch the lip service and utilise the talented women already engaged with YesScotland to speak to other women. It will be women who convince other women to vote yes, and that will only be achieved if the vision they offer is based on the information that women tell YesScotland that they need to hear.

YesScotland are not ignorant of this; they are have started to really engage with the imbalance. The initial seeds sown show they are taking this very seriously indeed. Much work needs to be done, but it is clear that YesScotland has every intention of ensuring that they too are listening.

Whilst the No campaign must take succour from polling data on women’s attitudes, they should be very wary of their current complacency, because they too have failed to canvass women’s opinions, but seem happy to take them for granted. A vote for a default position is not necessarily a vote of support, and is vulnerable to persuasion. The context of the referendum campaign coinciding with pernicious welfare changes at Westminster, which disproportionately affect women, means that the choice between the two potential futures is increasingly stark.

When this debate finally moves on from the bombastic phoney war typified by bluster and raised voices, and respects the public’s desire for a more mature, respectful and informed debate; women will undoubtedly become more engaged. The suggestion that women are more emotional or scared of independence ignores totally the reality that women are the thinkers, economists and providers.

If many women remain to be convinced of the benefit of independence it is because the argument is not being made or doesn’t contain the information women need. Canniness is no bad thing, and the Yes campaign will have to work very hard to overcome this natural caution.

There is a lot to be done, but If YesScotland and its partners can find the right way to sell that vision, they will win this referendum.

• Natalie McGarry is an SNP activist and co-founder of Women For Independence