State of the debate: Reaching out to women voters in the referendum campaign: patronising or persuasive?

Published: 28 August 2014

In light of controversial referendum adverts, Kirstein Rummery discusses the role of women voters in the referendum campaign.

The Better Together campaign launched its advert targeted at undecided women voters, and unleashed a storm of protest from the media and on Facebook and Twitter (#PatronisingBTLady).

The advert featured a homemaker and mother who couldn’t make up her mind how to vote and was not interested in politics, seeing it as a male preserve. The line “My Paul is worse than the telly these days. He will not leave off about the referendum! He started again first thing this morning; ‘Have you made a decision yet?’ I was like, ‘It’s too early to be discussing politics, you eat your cereal’,” was, according to the advert’s director, based on real interviews with real women who were undecided. In the end the woman decides to vote no to avoid the risks of a Yes vote.

This depicts women as:

1.       Primarily homemakers and seeing politics as a male domain

2.       Uninformed and uninvolved in the issues raised by the referendum

This is probably the case for a lot of women in Scotland: women are still the largest part of the ‘undecideds’. The combatative nature of the public debate generally is seen as a turn off for women voters, as this Twitter quote shows: @blairmcdougall: "Have sat in a *lot* of focus groups with undecided women voters over last 2 years. They cannot stomach shouty Salmond. #bbcindyref". The Better Together advert was an attempt to move away from the interpersonal clash between Salmond and Darling and appeal to the ‘average’ woman.

However, it is in stark contrast to a similar film launched by the Women For Independence group. This is a collection of real women, not actresses, voicing their view that voting in the referendum is important, that women’s voices have not been prominent in the debate. They argue that it is time for women to ‘step up’ and get involved, and start by voting in the referendum. They do not try to persuade voters to vote No, but simply to vote.  

This reflects the fact their view that more power to Scotland would involve more women directly involved in politics, and the evidence bears this out: At the moment the Scottish Parliament has  45 women MSPs (out of 129 = 35%) and Westminster has 147 women MPs (out of 650 = 23%).  This is mostly to do with the fact that the two largest parties in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP and Labour, have 17 and 18 women MSPs respectively. However, the position of women in *power* is more revealing. The Scottish Cabinet has 4 (out of 11) female Cabinet Secretaries, and 5 female junior ministers (out of 13). The Coalition cabinet at Westminster, following the 14th July reshuffle now has 5 women cabinet ministers out of 27 (in the previous cabinet there weret four women out of 27). Moreover, there are more high profile women in the Scottish Cabinet who attract and mentor other female politicians, which is a demonstrated way of getting more women into Parliament, than there are at Westminster.

The Women for Independence film. depicts women as:

1)       Varied, of different ages and backgrounds

2)      Informed, engaged and politically involved.

Both the Yes Scotland and Better Together teams, following the lead of the Deputy First Minister have  also made an effort to engage directly politically engaged women, for example through the Women’s Cabinet event, and through events targeted at women such as the roundtable event Women’s Voices, Scotland’s Future hosted by the Association of Chief Officers of Scottish Voluntary Organisations, at which Nicola Sturgeon’s opening remarks “I can’t help but think if more Parliaments looked like this room[ie filled with a majority of women] the world would be a much better place” drew a rousing cheer.

The evidence emerging from the Fairer, Caring Nations project indicates that women who are involved in the Equalities sector welcome the Yes campaign’s stance on social justice and equalities forming part of an independent Scotland’s constitution, and the policy promises around childcare, nuclear disarmament and welfare policies. This evidence also suggests that the Scottish Government employs a more participatory style of government than Westminster, with more women (and other groups) feel their voices are ‘heard’ in the political process, although there is some scepticism about how far or easily this translates into political action.

So which group of ‘undecided’ women will swing the vote? The risk-averse unengaged housewives, or the politically involved women who are likely to be more engaged with women’s issues? And will the risk-averse housewives find the Better Together campaign patronising or appealing; or will they find the Yes campaign’s promises of representation and pro-women policies persuasive or offputting? And will the politically engaged women believe the promises of a brighter, more women-friendly independent Scotland, or will they decide that Scottish women are in a better position remaining in the UK?

Watch this space.

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