Lesley Riddoch: Trading places for independence

Nicola Sturgeon has established herself as a strong presence in the debate. Picture: Robert Perry
Nicola Sturgeon has established herself as a strong presence in the debate. Picture: Robert Perry
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Women hold significant power in the debate over Yes or No and demand respect, writes Lesley Riddoch

What a difference a poll makes. A weekend ICM survey for Scotland on Sunday found the Yes campaign within reach of victory for the first time with support at 37 per cent – up from 32 per cent last September. The No vote is currently 44 per cent – down from 49 per cent. Even with the undecideds, that’s finally a bridgeable gap.

So what’s happened? Perversely, the ICM poll was carried out last Tuesday to Friday as Labour cruised to victory in the Cowdenbeath by-election. You could conclude there’s nowt as queer as folk. Or you could conclude a 34 per cent turnout is a weak predictor of anything else and Scots are fairly adept at distinguishing between a parliamentary by-election and an opinion poll on Scotland’s future.

You might also note that gender politics played a part in both results.

The late Helen Eadie MSP was a doughty fighter for women’s rights and that legacy doubtless helped her Labour successor in Fife. Meanwhile, ICM’s discovery of growing support for independence may also turn on the female vote.

ICM found 33 per cent of women plan to vote Yes compared to 28 per cent last September. That narrowing of the gender gap can only have been prompted by the SNP’s promise of better childcare for working mothers – after independence.

The success of the childcare strategy has surprised some commentators.

Last week’s Scottish Social Attitudes survey, after all, suggested the economy was easily the biggest factor governing the referendum vote for both sexes. But perhaps the Scottish Government has succeeded in broadening the concept of a healthy economy beyond the usual measure of full-time male employment. The White Paper explicitly linked better childcare to an increase in female employability and tax receipts, as well as greater equality and fairness. So greater optimism about eradicating inequality and creating more jobs post-independence (both up 4 per cent according to ICM) may now have a gender dimension too.

In short, Nicola Sturgeon’s direct pitch to women voters on childcare seems to have paid off.

Even though the Deputy First Minister was airbrushed out of White Paper coverage as mainstream commentators focused exclusively on Alex Salmond, Ms Sturgeon’s skilful fielding of questions, encyclopaedic knowledge of the White Paper and subsequent TV dissection of yet another Scottish Secretary all impressed watching women.

So now she has gone a step further to close the gender gap, backing a quota to enforce 40 per cent representation of women on all public and company boards – after a Yes vote.

That’s a risky proposition on a number of fronts.

Firstly, affordable childcare gets backing from almost everyone – gender quotas don’t.

Secondly, ordinary women voters may not much care about the prospects of women in the elitist world of the boardroom without wider debate.

Thirdly, action on quotas may not need to wait for independence. Equality legislation is reserved to Westminster, but a 2009 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission described it as a grey area of devolution and suggested UK ministers could give Scottish ministers the power to impose “positive equality duties on Scottish public bodies” if asked. Ms Sturgeon tweeted yesterday: “Shona Robison has asked them to. But so far they haven’t.”

Some might think it strange that such a politically fortuitous snub hasn’t been made public. Others might observe the SNP itself has little fondness for gender quotas. While Labour transformed the first Scottish Parliament by twinning male and female MSPs and the Liberal Democrats “zipped” candidates on the list, the SNP used no mechanism to improve equality and relied on persuasion and pressure to get women into positions of power instead.

Mind you, that seems to have been working.

Scottish Government statistics show 35 per cent of members on public boards are currently female. But evidence from Sweden shows backsliding begins as soon as government pressure eases or statutory measures end. If the right-on Nordics need compulsion, what makes Macho Caledonia think soft words alone can endure?

Labour’s Jenny Marra has said Labour MPs could demand a transfer of quota-setting powers from UK to Scottish ministers in the Commons. She has also suggested Holyrood passes legislation and seeks legal clarification if Westminster objects.

I don’t support Scottish Labour’s stance on the referendum but I do salute their work over decades raising the status of women.

Sure, Labour didn’t introduce quotas for public boards or affordable Nordic-style childcare when they had the chance. But neither has the SNP – yet.

Jenny Marra’s moves will be dismissed as troublemaking by many in the SNP. But they are worth exploring. There’ll be enough of a battle to persuade Scottish business about the merits of gender quotas without dividing like-minded feminists at the outset. And Scotland urgently needs action – because the rest of Europe is on the move.

The Norwegians led the way in 2003 when their trade (not equality) minister proposed a 40 per cent quota of women board members with the warning that non-compliant companies would be shut down. This caused uproar but firms toed the line. Over a decade the proportion of women on Norwegian boards rose from 7 per cent to 42 per cent.

Research shows board selection is now more professional and international, and suggests female board members are more wary of risk than men and more in tune with customers. France, Malaysia, Belgium, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Germany have followed Norway’s lead and the subject was raised at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos when the Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund declared: “I’m pro-quotas, I’m pro targets, and I think we should be made accountable to reach those numbers.”

The European Parliament has just backed mandatory 40 per cent quotas by 2020 -- but Britain looks set to opt out. Why? The Tories’ unofficial social policy spokesman Nigel Farage has opined that women who take time off work to have children are “worth less” to City employers than men.

Is that what Scots believe? Or is there a majority convinced about the need for quotas to deliver gender equality and better corporate governance? Trust is hard-won and easily lost so Ms Sturgeon must be careful not to alienate women voters warming towards independence with promises of jam endlessly delivered tomorrow.

Surely a united front to test Westminster’s resolve today is more appealing, and demonstrates how different politics in Scotland can become.