Lesley Riddoch: Gender may sway referendum vote

'Unless the SNP sounds whole-hearted over childcare, it will not be rewarded by women's votes'. Picture: PA
'Unless the SNP sounds whole-hearted over childcare, it will not be rewarded by women's votes'. Picture: PA
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MEN say yes to independence – women say no. That was the bittersweet reality behind a weekend poll which gave the SNP a 20-point lead over Labour and reduced the swing needed for a Yes vote to 5 per cent.

On the face of it, that’s achievable – but the lion’s share of undecided voters are women, who are more likely to vote No. The Panelbase survey found men almost twice as likely to support independence (47 per cent against 25 per cent) and that 22 per cent gender gap is part of a trend – 15 per cent last year and 13 per cent last month (recorded by Ipsos Mori).

Of course the latest finding could be a glitch. Or the independence gender gap could be widening.

Small wonder then that Alex Salmond used his leader’s address at the SNP’s spring conference to reach out to women voters, saying a “transformational shift towards childcare should be one of the first tasks of an independent Scotland.”

That single prominent plug meant childcare finally made it on to newspaper front pages – hooray. When a First Minister talks about better childcare and women in the workplace, it registers more than a thousand academic papers, unanimous cross-party group reports and pressure group-led conferences. But this pledge came with little detail – good if that means new voices might yet help shape policy, not so good if it doesn’t.

A few questions arise. Firstly, can European-style childcare be delivered without raising taxes to Scandinavian levels? In the UK, 25 per cent of childcare costs are met by the state compared with 75 per cent in Iceland and 80 per cent in Germany. That means childcare for two kids full time in Edinburgh costs £1,500 per month whilst in Denmark it is around £500. In overall spending though, the UK is not far behind Europe. Britain supports families through tax credits whilst European nations tend to subsidise childcare. A Scottish welfare system could switch from tax transfers to subsidised services if it controlled all aspects of taxation.

There are a lot of “coulds” “shoulds” and “ifs” in that sentence. So the second question is whether the SNP really value childcare or have simply made a calculated appeal for women’s votes.

During interviews after the First Minister’s pledge, no interviewer or interviewee mentioned childcare. Hostile twitter exchanges suggest an Early Years revolution is not a priority for parts of the SNP rank and file. Does that matter if the leadership is converted? Yes it does.

Childcare is delivered at council level where Labour authorities have had a better track record than the SNP. If childcare isn’t talked up at every opportunity and every level by SNP and Yes campaigners, women will regard Alex Salmond’s promise as worthless “top level talk” and “jam tomorrow”. And what if there’s a No vote in 2014 – still the more likely scenario. Childcare problems won’t disappear. What then?

The SNP’s response is that transformational change requires complete control of economic policy. That’s partly true. The trouble is, voters see immediate delivery on other policies also best achieved by rebalancing the books in a new, post-independence welfare package – policies like free prescriptions, free higher education, free personal care and “shovel ready” construction projects. How come childcare is always too hard to fund right here and now?

To the victor go the spoils. Unless the SNP sounds like whole-hearted, unequivocal driver of transformational childcare, the party will not be rewarded by grateful women at the polls.

So there’s a third big question. Is a workable new childcare system likely to be devised by a group of economic experts – the Council of Economic Advisers – who haven’t already insisted upon it?

I hae ma doots. If good childcare and more women in work are deemed economically valuable, the revolution will take place. If they are seen as “social goods” and half-heartedly bolted on to the existing economic model, it won’t. There are economists who champion a new outlook – notably Professor Ailsa McKay – but she is not on the council, just as long-standing advocates of change are absent from other Scottish Government panels on welfare and land reform. This matters.

Social reforms that are too timid and conservative waste time and please no-one. Weak AV voting reform offered such limited change that PR supporters campaigned against it. Likewise the limp Scottish Assembly proposed in 1979 and John Prescott’s toothless North-East assembly in 2004.

Indeed the Scotland Act is currently being “improved” by all its Unionist supporters. That’s what happens when you heed the great and good and consequently miss the boat.

So the Scottish Government must spread the net wider and involve new specialists, welfare experts and campaigners to get childcare, welfare and economic modelling right. Currently unbiddable figures who are the Dennis Canavans of their fields are being kept at arms-length from government processes, just as capable SNP leaders themselves were once excluded from civic life.

Progressive Scots understand a whole new type of society is possible – if economic levers are held by a diverse range of capable and progressive people. That means including people who’ve jettisoned conventional careers to champion alternative models of wealth, wellbeing and democracy, not handing important tasks lock, stock and barrel to the usual suspects.

Not least because radical thinkers have arguments the Yes campaign might want to deploy.

The Economist compiled its own “glass-ceiling index” a fortnight back to show which countries give women the best chance of equal treatment at work. Based on OECD data for 26 developed countries, it compared the number of men and women in tertiary education; female labour-force participation; the male-female wage gap; the proportion of women in senior jobs; and net child-care costs relative to the average wage. The top ten (in order) were New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Australia, Spain, Finland and Portugal, Poland and Denmark. The UK came 18th – after Israel.

Six of the top ten have populations of ten million or less. So the good news for the SNP is that small countries do better for women – an Arc of Equality even. How strange no-one within the Scottish Government, SNP or Yes campaign seems to have noticed. It almost makes you think no-one was actively looking. Till Saturday.

Alex Salmond’s childcare pledge is a very good start. But new voices must help shape policy now for a hope in hell of delivering.