The north-south divide

20 04 2015

As personified by the middle-aged man-child Russell Brand, there is disaffection with politics across all young people. However, while 50% of men aged 18-24 voted, only 39% of women in the same age group bothered to cast their vote. This means young women are an easy group for politicians to ignore. Amongst women in general, women voting in general elections has fallen by 18 per cent and, according to Woman’s Hour, only 55% of women in the UK are planning to vote.

Why is this? Well, just 22% of political journalists are women and only 23% of MPs in the last parliament were women and the three main party leaders in Westminster are men. So with so few women in politics, or reporting on politics, there are few role models for young women. This male-dominated environment, with it’s grey suits and the constant braying and jeering in the House of Commons, is simply not one with which most young women can identify. The images and language of Westminster are almost totally masculine. Even when politicians focus on women they do it badly. What was more alarming than the Labour pink bus was how the Labour Party described the campaign itself. Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, demonstrated just what they really thought about women when she suggested that they wanted, “to have a conversation about the kitchen table and around the kitchen table rather than having an economy that just reaches the boardroom table.” That’s right. They are aiming to talk to you women where women are; in the kitchen not the boardroom!

But things are different here in Scotland, where almost three-quarters of Scottish women say that they are certain or very likely to vote in the general election! An election which, with many powers devolved to Holyrood, is possibly less relevant than the election to that parliament which will take place in 2016. The independence debate changed things in Scotland for all voters, but it changed most for young people and for women. Post-referendum there has been a huge increase in the number of women actually joining political parties; 44% of SNP members are now women. When Nicola Surgeon was elected as First Minister she became the first UK politician to appoint a gender balanced cabinet. Furthermore, all three party leaders at Holyrood are women, as is the Presiding Officer. The numbers in parliament are important, of course, but more so is the change in language and the change in emphasis. As Nicola Sturgeon said, “If you’ve got a fairer society you’ve got a stronger economy. The two should go hand in hand”

While the engagement started with that simple yes/no referendum it didn’t stop there.

Away from party politics, women have started and joined new political organisations in their thousands. Women for Independence has almost 20,000 followers in 53 local groups all over Scotland. Many of these groups, which show women how politics and campaigning works, were formed after the referendum as women continue to be engaged with matters of state and society. Regardless of whether women were yes or no voters, the referendum showed women that our opinions matter and that we could exercise influence and power.

6 of the 12 strong team at Common Weal, a self-styled group aiming to replace our “me first” society with one in which it is “all of us first”, are women. While there still seems some confusion about their legal form and directors/trustees, they have made a commitment to a 50:50 gender split on the board.

While David Cameron asserts that the prospect of a Labour government supported by the SNP is a “match made in hell” many of the UK electorate don’t seem to agree, with Nicola Sturgeon claiming an inbox full of emails from voters from outside Scotland who would love the chance to vote SNP.

It is incredible that it is a woman, one who as a member of the Scottish Parliament is not even standing in the Westminster election, is able to assert at the launch of the SNP manifesto that she would build not just a “stronger Scotland” but a “better and more progressive politics for everyone” in the UK.

By changing the look and the language of UK politics Nicola Sturgeon may succeed where pale and male politicians have failed and persuade women into the polling booths!

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