A Woman’s Place is in the Union (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)

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. 


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

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27 thoughts on “A Woman’s Place is in the Union (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)

  1. As a new labour supporitng Scottish woman how do you feel about:

    1. The treatment of Cllr Anne Marie Millar?

    2. Your (female) Scottish new labour leaders response to it?

  2. I’m afraid that women tend to keep their true views close to their chests(so to speak).They don’t tend to take part in surveys,so it’s difficult to be so sure of which way they vote.
    However,I am a women ,I have a large circle of female friends,and my feelings are that a couple more years of Tories doing the dirty and the labour party can kiss goodbye to votes and hello to a new Scotland.

  3. In my own opinion and as a woman myself many women at this stage have not really given the referendum much thought and haven’t looked into the facts as they are busy caught up with family life and busy work and social lives. I feel women so far have not really caught up with the debate and are reacting against independence because they are scared of change. Once the true facts about our economy emerge and the exciting possibilities are explained to those who have not yet had time to think about it, I feel that women will start to get behind the Independence campaign. There is everything to be gained.

  4. A very pertinent article, Melanie.

    I agree whole-heartedly that women must be encouraged to take a more active part in the political debate (and not only about independence for Scotland).

    It seems, however, that Labour may not be going about this in the most appropriate manner:

    1) Gilbert Davidson allegedly threatening the apprenticeship of Anne Marie Millar’s disabled son

    2) John Kelly (Margaret Curran’s election agent) allegedly hectoring 61 year old Rosina Muir in a Baillieston supermarket

    3) The infamous “doing” purportedly threatened by Ian Davidson against Dr Eilidh Whiteford

    4) Eric Joyce’s alleged affair with a 17 year old schoolgirl

    Even if none of the above examples are true (or perhaps one side of a story), the widespread reporting of issues such as these leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth.

    Labour *need* to engage women voters and incidents like the above serve only to tarnish an already shabby-looking Labour pary in Scotland.

    Johann Lamont really needs to take a stand and speak out loudly about the bullying and intimidation that, if the reports are to be believed, seems to be the modus operandi of the Labour party in Scotland.

    Failure to do so will, I believe, drive women to the independence camp in their droves.

    1. “Failure to do so will, I believe, drive women to the independence camp in their droves”

      Really? Bill Walker MSP.

      That is all.

      1. Yes – really. If they become disillusioned with Labour and are unlikely to vote Tory (toxic in Scotland) or Lib Dem (irrelevant in Scotland) where else do you suppose they would turn ?

        Complacency by Labour will be costly.

      2. “Bill Walker” MSP, immediately suspended, from SNP and Scottish paralimentray group.
        So hows the labour disciplinary procedures for dealing with similar problems coming on ‘spacecadet’, have they even started yet???

  5. “alongside Johann Lamont as Leader, who has recently headlined on the 400 Scottish women losing their jobs every day”

    It might be better for women in Labour if Johann Lamont was one of those 400 women losing their jobs today. She certainly doesn’t seem too bothered by the macho bullying culture of Glasgow’s councillors; when will we see this investigation into the intimidation of Anne Marie Millar? It would certainly be better for women who are losing their jobs to have a government committed to creating, rather than destroying, jobs. An independent Scotland could elect such a government. It might even elect a Labour government. Labour, however, would prefer Scotland remain in the union and be governed by a toxic coalition of neoliberal Tories and neoliberal Liberals. They could use Scotland’s wealth to improve Scotland, but they’d rather continue subsidising English voters who reject their ideals and policies…resulting in Labour rejecting their own ideals and policies and adopting the neoliberal policies of the opposition, just to get elected. It’s time to cut England loose, because they have no interest in social justice or the values of the Scottish people. Scottish Labour, however, would rather Scotland got destructive Tory governments every now and then, to be sure that England could sometimes get watered-down and marginally less destructive Labour governments.

    There is an opportunity in an independent Scotland for Scottish Labour. But they seem determined to throw it away in favour of moving ever further to the right in the hope that the Daily Mail reading little Englanders will occasionally elect red Tories instead of blue Tories. UK Labour are all about achieving power and to hell with values. An independent Scottish Labour, in an independent Scotland, would have a chance to re-assert genuine Labour values. You could be building social justice in a nation which is crying out for it. Instead you’re arguing for continuing to allow Westminster to soak up our wealth and spend it on nuclear weapons, illegal wars, propping up casino capitalism, vanity projects and increasing the gap between rich and poor. You could be a proud Labour party in a small country, but you’d rather be a poor facsimile of a Tory party in a big country, because power and status are more important than social justice and the people.

    There’s a reason there was such a big swing away from Labour in 2010 and it isn’t because you didn’t manage to get your message across to the people. We heard your message. It was “Better a Tory government committed to destroying your services than an SNP government committed to keeping them. Better to pay for your prescriptions and education than have an SNP government give them to you for free. Better to have Westminster keep on leeching off Scotland than have Scotland led by the SNP. Better to be ****ed in the UK than risk being governed by the SNP in an independent Scotland”. We heard you. And we laughed and voted SNP anyway.

  6. I doubt if women are happy with the labour parties bullying of women as reported over the past few years.

    Another report emerging that a 61 year old labour woman needed to be protected by her son in a supermarket checkout cue, when Margaret Currans main adviser shouted at her calling her a disgrace because he believed she did not support his selection as a candidate for a Glasgow seat.

  7. “Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me.” – Black Agnes, seige of Dunbar 1338

    “stop the world, Scotland wants to get on” – Winnie Ewing, Hamilton, 1967.

    Scotland has a proud history of independent-minded women, and Scottish women will do Scotland proud once more in voting for indepedence.

    1. Well said Mac. I thought of Black Agnes Myself.

      And Isabelle MacDuff who placed the Crown on the Bruces head.

      And Mary Queen of Scots, proud Supporter of a union of the crowns way before it happened.

      And or the countess of Ross who helped keep the peace when Andrew de Moray laid siege to Urquhart Castle.

      There are plenty of women whose achievements have been celebrated for Centuries, not overlooked at all. There are simply less of them. Ths and other coments from Johann are just a cynical attempt to wint the vote of women because the rest of the parties in Scotland are men.

      And just in case you’ve forgotten Johann, one of the most HATED prime ministers of all time was a woman.

  8. Just the usual negativity, no change there.

    Note: Does the SNP 19 women MSP’s outnumber the number of labour women MSP’s, can anyone say???

    1. SNP 18
      Lab 17
      But this does not take into account which are Constituency or List MSPs so not sure what it proves really.

  9. I hope the thrust of this article is not the suggestion that women voters are more easily scared than male voters.

    Is this really the best pro-union argument available?

  10. ” 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.”

    Surely if support for independence is strongest amoung men, it is them the anti-independence campaign need to ‘connect with’ (whatever that political guff actually means)? Women are according to you more sold on ‘No’ but you don’t give them enough credit re going out and voting, hence the need to target them?

    “A woman’s place is in the Union”. Well, that’s them telt anyway; I’m sure female voters won’t find this article condescending at all.

  11. If you are targeting women you would be best starting out understanding what they want.

    If you look at the most recent MORI poll 73 per cent of women agree with extending the powers of the Scottish Parliament to include more laws and duties and control of most taxation as compared with 70 per cent of men.

    And 64 per cent of women agree with having a devo max question on the ballot paper as well as an indy question as compared to 53 per cent of men.

    Of course the key point there is that among both genders there is clear majority support for a radical extension of the Scottish Parliament’s powers – and for putting that option to the vote.

    So are Labour going to support that?

  12. I would have thought,given recent events, that Labour is the last party any woman would want to be in!

  13. ‘Melanie’, from your article you appear to put your side of the argument as coming from people who use a “cautious and reasonable approach”, people who weigh up the “evidence and arguments” and are “more interested in a rational, evidenced disscussion” into matters at hand.

    So please explain ‘Jackie Ballie’ how does she fit into that description ??? With her latest foray into the headlines ” patients share blankets ” having been found to be untrue again.

    It kind of blows your side of the argument out of the water.

  14. I would not be so sure about women being pro union. In Finland’s case it was women and the progress made by them that delivered Finland out of its Union with Russia.

  15. Why can’t people stick to the subject at hand, rather than bring up the current allegations about Labour councillors and MPs? How about the revelation about that SNP councillor? Politics has nothing to do with their behaviour.

    As to the article, gender should have absolutely nothing to do with the number of MSPs. What we want is are compentent politicians.

  16. Can I just say that you have chosen a very offensive title for this article, Melanie. Many of the women you will be appealing to will be old enough to have suffered the consequences of such entrenched social attitudes.

  17. Not a great start to an article, thinking Rob Roy was a heroic Scottish hero instead of a cattle thief immortalised by Sir Walter Scott. And I’m pretty sure that Salmonds dreams do not include his immortalisation in a Landseer portrait.

    You would do well instead to research the role of women in the fight for Independence. Women like Penelope Barker or Hannah Arnett. I would say their view of their countrys involvement in foreign affairs had be greatly enhanced by having their own voice, and not by being diluted and ignored by the opinions of Westminster.

  18. Interesting article. What I did find a bit odd was that the premise for the whole article is that fewer women support Independence and then you go on to complain that there are fewer female SNP politicians in parliament than men…

    Surely if less women support it, then there will be much less who would go into politics as a SNP politician…then they’ve got to get elected..so, given the figures you’ve cited I’d say 19 (although isn’t enough, I’d agree) isn’t really that surprising. Is the solution more female only short lists? Because I know I’d feel patronised if it took a separate list to get me a job.

    I won’t even mention the recent showings of several incidents towards women since they’ve been mentioned above.

  19. Thank you for such a well researched article, Melanie. Your figures show a definite tendancy for Scottish women to be more supportive of our Union than their male counterparts, and our own polls carried out by trained members of our local branch do agree with your findings. We have however established that the results vary significantly depending on where the women were actually questioned. Support for Labour (and therefore against independence) was very high indeed among women we spoke to in bingo halls, with results over 90 % in some locations. On the other hand, when approached in libraries, just over 60 % of the women polled opted for destructive separation from our cousins south of the border. This only confirms the correctness of our policy over the last 40 years of building large numbers of bingo halls and only as many libraries as are really needed. We must in future concentrate our efforts on the consolidation of our support among women voters if we are to once again become Scotland’s party. In the run-up to the referendum we have to (for a change) organise a positive campaign aimed at Scotland’s women. Success for the Union would be virtually guaranteed.

  20. All the same, Ms Ward is quite right about our failure to commemorate women of great historical significance and stature. Scotland is the only country in Europe to have no memorial (as far as I can find) to the great mathematician Mary Somerville and precious little for Elsie Inglis. Shame on us all.

    1. Somerville Street and Somerville Square in Burntisland – her birthplace.

  21. Much obliged Jim; I was unaware of that -but I stand by the wider point about a general failure to commemorate great women or, indeed, to understand the large numbers of women who have had an active role in politcal, economic and cultural life down the centuries. In the 13th century at least 10% of the identifiable movers and shakers in the Scottish politcal community were women, but you’d hardly think so given the attention they get from historians. I’d like to think that a comparable figure would be better than 10% today, but I’m pretty sure it was n’t better just thirty or forty years ago.

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