Can women save the Union? MELANIE WARD thinks they can do just that.

 

Scottish history – like history in general – is littered with heroic male figures: William Wallace; Robert the Bruce; even Rob Roy.  Alex Salmond dreams that he might take his place alongside them.  The role of women in our national story, however, has been consistently overlooked.  But if we are smart then the forthcoming independence referendum could change all that, as polls suggest that the votes of women may be crucial to keeping the Union together.

Polls consistently show that women voters are more pro-Union than their male counterparts.  A typical example was the January 2012 Ipsos Mori poll which showed support for independence at 45% amongst men, compared to just 30% for women.  This is a significant gap, already hinting that the pro-Union campaign needs to connect with women and ensure that they show up at the ballot box to cast their votes.  Interestingly, polls also suggest that English women are more pro-union than English men.

When it come to our constitutional arrangements, evidence also confounds traditional stereotypes of women as being more emotional than men, as Rachel Ormston of the Scottish Centre for Social Research has documented.  The economy is frequently found to be one of the main factors that will influence voting behaviour at the referendum – but the 2011 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that women are more likely to take into account the economic impacts that the break-up of Britain could have on families (ignore, if you will, the irony of this given that men dominate most public and media discussions on the economy).  The survey found that that 23% of men would vote for independence even if standards of living were worse as a result – compared to just 10% of women.

As the group which performs most domestic work and makes up 89% of care givers, this may be to do with the fact that it tends to be women who manage the day-to-day household budget and would be confronted first with the reality of having to cope with a decline in living standards.  This presents Labour and the pro-Union campaign with the opportunity and challenge to reach out to women by helping to relate the fiscal reality of a UK divorce to the lives of Scottish families.  This means talking in more specific terms about how the enormous disruption of a UK break-up would be bad for the squeezed middle: for jobs and businesses: for the price of goods and services; and for the public sector including, of course, the thousands of Scots employed by the Ministry of Defence.

Of course women are interested in so-called ‘women’s issues’ but the evidence is clear that economic and other issues matter to us hugely, when politicians make them relevant.  I, for one, also care about foreign policy and my country’s role in the wider world; another reason why I am determined that Scotland’s place is as a full and flourishing member of the UK.

The division in the approaches of men and women highlighted by the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey is, to some extent, reflected in the approach of two of the figures who have taken a leading role in the national debate about independence.  One can be characterised as the ‘at all costs’ approach – people who have a fervent ideological belief in an independent Scotland and who will support it, come what may.  Alex Salmond embodies this in every way, and voters with this outlook are going to be extremely difficult to sway.  The other is the ‘cautious and reasoned’ approach – people who weigh up the evidence and arguments, and are more interested in a rational, evidenced discussion about the impacts that a divided UK would have on the lives of ordinary people.  Alistair Darling, with his wealth of experience, has begun to take up the mantle of this second approach which may have a wider appeal to more women voters.

Aside from the Conservatives’ general lack of popularity in Scotland, David Cameron’s well-documented ‘woman problem’ may render his recent forays into the debate over our nation’s future as particularly unhelpful where female voters are concerned.

The good news is that the Scottish Labour Party is in pole position to connect with women voters as the referendum approaches.  We have remarkable women in key leadership roles – alongside Johann Lamont as Leader, who has recently headlined on the 400 Scottish women losing their jobs every day – we have Margaret Curran as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland and Victoria Jamieson as Chair of the Party.  Add this to a new generation of outstanding young women MPs and MSPs such as Gemma Doyle, Kez Dugdale and Jenny Marra, and things are looking up.  Labour also has the benefit of having an almost equal number of men and women in the Scottish Parliamentary group, compared to the SNP’s shocking showing of just 19 women from a total of 69 MSPs.

So the process of the pro-Union campaign can also help our Party to showcase our talent, our relevance and our understanding of the real issues in people’s lives.  Thus it can help us to win back support, as well as win the referendum.

This Saturday at Scottish Labour Party conference, the Labour Women’s Network is hosting a debate on this issue at our fringe event, “A woman’s place is in the Union: are women’s votes the key to keeping the UK together?”  Our fantastic panel comprises: Margaret Curran MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland; Kezia Dugdale MSP, Shadow Youth Employment Minister; Victoria Jamieson, Chair of the Scottish Labour Party and pollster Steven Lawther.  Join us if you can at 4.30pm in the Earl Grey Suite at the Hilton Dundee, and visit www.lwn.org.uk to become a member. 

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Melanie Ward is Treasurer of the Labour Women’s Network and is a former President of NUS Scotland.  Follow her on twitter at @melanie_ward