Jennifer Dempsie: Winning over female voters crucial to SNP ambitions

IF YOU are only just recovering from election fatigue the thought of the looming Holyrood contest may just bring you to despair. Despite this, political anoraks and activists across Scotland's political parties have been working away behind the scenes preparing for Scotland's elections in May.

Indeed, on the day of the general election, eager beaver Peter Murrell, the SNP's chief executive, had prominently displayed in SNP HQ a sign that said "364 days to go".

While innovative manifestos and battle-hardy candidates are critical, in reality I suspect it will be the presentation of the people and policies that will make or break Scotland's political parties. Never has this been more true for the SNP. Alex Salmond's team have to convince voters they are ready for another term - one which will undoubtedly be the toughest any Scottish government has had to face.

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Apart from devising a bargain basement manifesto, the greatest challenge the SNP faces is how to return to government with a greater share of the vote. I think this can only be done if the gender imbalance in the party's support - the lower number of female supporters to male - is tackled.

It's a strange situation for the SNP to be in given their long line of successful female politicians and decent record in representation of women in elected and party posts. Yet it is a long-standing problem. Strong women from Winnie Ewing to Margo MacDonald and now Nicola Sturgeon have been the public face of female nationalism. Clearly role models are not enough as this hasn't translated into votes.

In my last job as a special adviser to the SNP government (and the only female adviser, I may add) the male-centric focus of politics could be a bit disheartening - something which ex-Labour ministers Cathy Jamieson, Susan Deacon and Wendy Alexander found in St Andrew's House according to an equality report published earlier this year.

Overcoming the male-centric focus of politics could be the making of the SNP in next year's poll. In a tight battle, increasing female support might tip the balance. Just think, if the SNP had as many female as male votes in 2007 there would have been an additional three per cent swing to the SNP in the list vote which would have made this term somewhat easier. This is also important as ultimately it is the list vote that determines who will be First Minister.

Let's be clear - gender balance is taken seriously within the SNP leadership. Efforts have been made to soften the party's image. During the 2007 election a major push was made in education and health policy to attract the female vote. However if real gains are to be made in this department a concentrated campaign is needed and the adoption of a more women-friendly approach to campaigning.

A recent academic paper by Professor James Mitchell, Women and the Scottish National Party, outlined challenges for the SNP's electoral progress: women are more likely to support "more powers" than independence; and there is also a lack of female party members.

The most recent YouGov polls on independence show that while men are more likely than women to vote "yes", the margin isn't that big. An interesting factor is the higher proportion of women in the "don't know" category. To win women over in the indy debate I believe a positive narrative on independence is needed which breaks down the case issue by issue. Winning women over on the economic case post-downturn will be pivotal.

Polling shows that many women are strongly opposed to Trident and supportive of increasing Holyrood's responsibilities, for example.

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Some chinks of light are coming through in tackling the membership imbalance - for example in the SNP Women Network in Edinburgh with Shirley Anne Somerville MSP. But this needs to be more widespread. New members could also be attracted by encouraging women to be engaged in the less formal side of party politics.

Scottish Labour has a strong record in balanced parliamentary representation and party membership. According to Labour, of the 2,500 new members who have joined the party in Scotland since the general election the ratio of women to men is around 2:1. This is ground the SNP needs to make up. Particularly given a 66 per cent male membership, a majority of male voters in the 2007 Holyrood election and the fact that 14 of its 47 MSPs in Holyrood are women compared to Labour's even split.

In spite of this, increasing female representation to attract female support is just part of the solution. Adopting a more positive and less rough-and-tumble approach to political communications is absolutely critical. All too often, not just women, but men also, are turned off by the hard words of the political debate.

It would also be good to see some of the SNP's talented female backbenchers as well as female ministers begin to take a more prominent role.

The First Minister often described himself to me as "an optimist". Well I would profess to share that view. The challenges the SNP faces in gender balance are opportunities, which, if given sufficient backing could be the critical factor that secures that coveted second term.

• Jennifer Dempsie is an associate director of Weber Shandwick and a former special adviser to First Minister Alex Salmond