18 January 2011

"Winning over female voters crucial to SNP ambitions...."

Hamlet, Hamlet, loved his mammy
Hamlet, Hamlet, acting bammy...

One of the perils of being suspected of being a calculating so-and-so is that the suspicious section of your audience has its eyes and ears always upon you, lending even your smallest gesture a sly, premeditated significance. Many folk have interpreted Alex Salmond's recent Desert Island Discs appearance and music selections in this way. Not, as the venerable format suggests, a chance for tight-buttoned public figures to be disclosing and personable, but another way for the strategising political creature to calculate what sort of "inner life" and species of relaxed candour they'd like listeners to imagine they have. Only a rather elementary liar would imagine only two faces are required, mask and phizog. The real past masters recognise that at least three personas are necessary, and there is no more effective way of hoodwinking the credulous than by giving them the impression they've "seen through" your front and have discovered, by simple operation of their own wit and clarity, some bashfully concealed real quality of your character. In most cases, when the vanity which  accompanies apparently clear-eyed perception vies with suspicion, the latter rarely triumphs. 

If you are of a doubt filled disposition, you might think that it was hardly coincidental that Salmond used his radio spot to harp on the string of the debts of affection and influence owed to his mammy,  rewarded with references to the importance of a female influence in his life. This is by no means to take cynicism too far and to imply that he was fibbing. Rather, we might see it as a significant example of sincerity and self interest happily coinciding.  Yesterday's Holyrood poll furnishes us with another, electorally extremely concerning example of the SNP's gender gap, which is by now well-kent phenomenon on this blog. In a Scotsman column published last August, former Salmond aide Jennifer Dempsie contended that "Winning over female voters crucial to SNP ambitions", continuing:

"... 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."

If she is correct and the late polling even broadly captures the underlying quality of public opinion, we're in for a drubbing unless real progress is made and made swiftly.  The latest data shows the SNP some 18% behind Labour amongst female respondents in the constituency and 29% behind amongst those women who identify as "committed voters". On the regional list, we are lagging behind Labour to the tune of 15% amongst women, rising to a 24% gap amongst those women voters, committed to exercising their franchise. In the last Ipsos MORI poll which I covered in any detail, published at the end of last November, the SNP were lagging behind Labour in female support to the tune of 18% on the constituency ballot and a significantly smaller 3% on the list. An earlier YouGov poll from August, the "gap" between the SNP and Labour amounting to 6% in constituencies, while the party actually recorded a lead of 1% over Labour amongst women on the list. The data suggests that the gap is shifting and implies something of the complexity of the social phenomenon only partially pinned down by crude quantitative categories. It also suggests that the results from recent polling  diagnose the widest end of any gender gap. Few I think, would seriously suggest that the gap is merely phantasmal, a pollster's spectre. 
In a paper by James Mitchell, Robert Johns and Lynn Bennie, "Gendered Nationalism: Women and the SNP" (2009), they wrote:

"... there has been little research aimed at explaining this gender gap. One possible explanation lies in national identity, which as already indicated is a key mobiliser in support for the SNP. It might be that Scottish national identity has greater appeal for males, not least because of its associations with sport (football and rugby, for example). The evidence here contradicts that possibility. If anything, men’s identities are more British than are those of women, although the differences are small (and only marginally statistically significant). The SNP’s particular appeal to men – or problems in attracting support from women – must have some other basis."

The main focus of the rest of this piece, quite understandably, was on the significant quantity of data unearthed in the course of their ESRC funded project on the SNP party membership.  They need no lectures from me on how generalising from the party membership to the general voting population is problematic. Nevertheless, they tentatively suggest that there may be some relationship between differentially gendered attitude towards the constitution and support for the SNP. Entangled issues of (a) support for nationalism and (b) support for Nationalists. As we are often reminded, support for the SNP is oft-times greater than support for independence, encompassing a number of folk who may be undecided about, or actively hostile to, the prospect of Scottish independence. By focussing on independence by referendum, the party has actively fostered the notion that a vote for the SNP is not a vote for independence per se (at most it is a vote for a vote on independence). Independence being a "detachable issue", Unionists can vote SNP with consciences clear. Mitchell et. al and others hypothesise that women may not vote SNP because of their more conservative constitutional attitudes. For my own part, I'd rather focus the issue in a different way, and instead of rooting the problem of lower female support in women, focus on how the party needs to change its approach, whether substantially or in terms of communication.

Given the urgency of the issue and the necessity to think through these issues - now and in the longer term - I thought it might be helpful to bring together recent discussions of the issue across the blogs and the various other explanations and solutions people have adduced to the N(/n)ationalist problem. Inspired by Dempsie's piece, I set down my initial thoughts in a post on the SNP and its gender voting gap.

Spectator blogger Alex Massie rooted the problem more specifically in the Maximum Eck's personality, styling it Alex Salmond's women problem and suggesting that women may find his style alienating.

Analysis aided by the virtue of being a lassie herself, La Corbie offered her burdz eye view on The SNP's problem with wimmin, earlier writing about the Scottish parliamentary representation of women in Work, Work, Work.

Bella Caledonia hosted an interest range of authoresses who particularly focussed on the constitutional rather than the partisan issue of SNP strategy. Given the (albeit complex) connection between attitudes to the constitution and attitudes to the SNP, these articles contain much that is relevant and worthy of consideration. Caitlin O'Hara was Bella's first Independent Woman, while Lena the Hyena was their second.  Joan McAlpine echoed the title of her blog in Go Lassies Go. It wasn't the wild mountain thyme she was after, but some of the whys and wherefores on Scottish women's attitudes towards the prospect of an independent Scotland and more concretely, towards the SNP .

Scotland Deformed? asks Kirsten Stirling. Analysing the work of Alasdair Gray, she concludes:

"In Poor Things Gray takes a tradition of seeing Scotland as essentially divided and transforms its allegorical potential into something still monstrous yet potentially positive, reappropriating the celebratory approach to the Caledonian antisyzygy found in Smith and MacDiarmid. The deformed body of Bella Caledonia need not be read negatively. Gray highlights the discourses of monstrosity in the cultural and literary construction of Scotland and proposes an allegorical body in which different constructions of Scotland can co-exist. He opens the door to new narratives of Scotland in which both Scotland and women can be theorised without being critically deformed in the process."

Finally, I tried to approach the issue from the side of Scottish masculinities, and their implications for an analysis of Scottish women's feelings and attitudes, in Will you go laddie go?


  1. In "Will you go laddie go" there was an inchoate exchange with Joan McAlpine on the greater pressures on women to anglicise: it would be good to have a bit more information about this. That women are an agent for anglicisation I had always taken for granted, and put down to their discredit: I would be quite happy to have my prejudices countered!

  2. http://holyroodhorrors.blogspot.com/

    Me like. Ugh.

  3. I remember once travelling back up from London on an overnight train. The guy sitting across the table to me, who had a carry-out with him, decided after about the 6th beer that he would convert me to Scottish nationalism. He actually woke me up to do this - I wasn't really asleep but was clearly pretending to be.

    I politely explained that I was already an SNP voter (and member though I didn't tell him that) but it didn't stop him. On and on he went, talking the biggest load of anti-Englsh racist pish. It was torture. By the time we got to Edinburgh if I had been given a gun I would have used it on him, or possibly myself.

    The worst part of it was the half hour lecture he gave me on the Govan by-election. I was at the Govan by-election practically full-time but it was clear from what he said that he had never been there, didn't even know where the rooms were.

    I tell this story simply to illustrate the point that, if we are going to be honest about it, some Scottish nationalists are right arses. It is possible that they have put all the women in their lives off Scottish nationalism for life!

    I have other thoughts of a more serious nature which I will post later. I was inspired to share my story however by your first two comments.

  4. I'm glad I helped inspire you Indy.

    I look forward to your serious thoughts on this matter, but of course, your man's tea takes priority.

  5. Am Firinn,

    I believe that particular argument emanated from Joan. You'd have to ask her about her understanding of it. I believe she primarily rooted in the claim in (a) the content of popular culture, as seen on the telly and (b) the idea that women and men relate differently to that material.

  6. "I remember once travelling back up from London on an overnight train. The guy sitting across the table to me, who had a carry-out with him, decided after about the 6th beer that he would convert me to Scottish nationalism. He actually woke me up to do this - I wasn't really asleep but was clearly pretending to be."

    Jings, I didn't know we'd met, Indy! ;-)

  7. LPW

    Yes, I was trying to tempt Joan in. I seem to have succeeded only in winding up Indygal. This wasn't really my intent; but the point is worth making that if we wait for women to start converting men to Scottish nationalism it seems we'll be waiting a gey lang time. As a Scottish nationalist, I'm afraid I do rather perceive that as a fault.

  8. As someone involved in a campaign strategy(and a woman), I find myself asking the opposite question: why are women attracted to Labour? The corruption? The flip flops in policy? The bald hypocrisy? But in all seriousness, that is the bottom line - the SNP have to understand what they are up against in order to counter it. I'd love to see some focus groups with Scottish women Labour voters to see what the appeal is. The SNP has plenty of issue-based evidence that their policies have benefited women and families, is it just a matter of message tweaking? Or, as a branch member pointed out, are women more enthralled with monarchy and all it entails and therefore naturally unionist as a result?


  9. Am Firinn,

    How do you know you vexed Ms McLaughlin? On your second point, I've no idea if Joan reads my learned disquisitions on any regular basis, so if you wish a clear account on what strikes me as an interesting issue, I suggest you pursue her directly on it.

  10. Indy /= IndyGal

  11. patronsaintofcats,

    A fair point and I concede - what you describe may be the most helpful way to reframe the problem and resolve it, from a party strategy point of view. Here the two dimensions of my interest in the problem diverge, as it seems plain enough that an electorally-minded Nationalist interest calls for a rather different understanding than might be generated by broader enquiry into the sociological whys and wherefores.

    The latter is likely to be more ambitious and encompassing in its goals, finally looking to generate some understanding of why?
    The SNP's question, by contrast, is a humbler one and quite reasonably poses a more limited why, with the ultimate goal not of understanding, but of changing voting behaviour.

  12. I am not Anne McLaughlin. I feel it is only fair to Anne to point that out every time it is suggested that I am! We have a similar online moniker but that is where it ends.

  13. Think of all the capacity for mischief, Indy! That said, assuming that Ms McLaughlin will not be returning to Holyrood after May, given her position on the list in Glasgow, you may wish to get your villainy in quick...

  14. I apologise both to Ms McLaughlin and to Indy. I also wish Ms McLaughlin all the best with the Glasgow poll. When Glasgow does wake up from the Unionist suppressants, it will be a sight to behold!