Tea and no sympathy: The 'Better Together' campaign's mistake is to assume it knows how women think


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The Independent Online

In the BBC referendum debate last week between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, a woman in the audience said that she was voting for independence, and that nothing would change her mind. "I can see I'm not going to persuade you," Darling agreed, ruefully. Gesticulating as she made her point, on her wrist for all to see she was wearing this year's fad – a loom band bracelet. At this moment of impassioned plea for independence, it seemed incongruous that she was wearing a seven-year-old's wristband. Because, of course, independence is for life, not just a playground trend of 2014.

I promise I'm not obsessed with loom bands, but there was one again, this time in blue and black, on the wrist of an actress in a Better Together advert released last week. She was portraying a female voter who cannot decide which way to vote in the referendum on 18 September. There just aren't enough hours in the day, this "busy mum" complained as she clutched a sub-Cath Kidston mug of tea, to ponder all the difficult questions around independence such as the currency, oil reserves and childcare.

This advert was criticised for being patronising to women by portraying them as "daft ditherers". And it was patronising. Better Together insist the comments are taken from what Scottish women said to canvassers. Yet I'm sure Better Together could have taken down words from as many women who were decisive and clear-headed. But when you are fighting for a cause, sometimes you only focus on what you want to hear, the remarks that stand up your argument, not those that weaken it.

Better Together's mistake is to assume it knows how women think. It has fallen for the same myth that political parties succumb to at every general election, that female voters are as one: rushed off their feet by the pressures of work-life, worried about childcare, education and making the household budget stretch until payday. Parties become bewitched by the "women's vote" like it is an electoral prize that can be won by a strange combination of adverts with mugs of tea and policies such as marriage tax breaks and free childcare.

But, as most women – and men – know, female voters are as diverse and varied as colours on a loom-band bracelet. Some are passionate, ideological, heart-led, others are indecisive, cautious and nervous about politicians. Just like men. So Women for Independence, a female nationalist group, put the case for Scottish self-rule very well – but they don't speak for all women.

You can see why Better Together – and indeed the Yes campaign – think it is a good idea to target women. The gender gap on Scottish independence is eight points – with women more in favour of the union than men. In fact, there are only two issues where the polls show such a stark gender gap: the Scottish referendum and military interventionism abroad (women are less likely to favour it). But on everything else, broadly, men and women think the same.

So the way to win the "women's vote" in Scotland – and at the general election – is not to patronise them with kitchen table homilies but to put them at the heart of everything. Surely female voters are more likely to vote for a party that has women in positions of power and influence (such as Nicola Sturgeon and Women for Independence), not one that pretends to know what they think. This isn't a gender-specific thing, it's a human trait to want to see ourselves represented at the heart of power.

Educating tweeters

"Three o'clock and all's well," said the policeman to his colleague at the entrance to the Foreign Office last Thursday as the chimes of Big Ben rang out across Westminster and I jogged past after a run around St James's Park. I was reminded of this when, 24 hours later, the Prime Minister was in Downing Street explaining why the UK security threat had been raised from "substantial" to "severe". If you are protecting the Foreign Office, or indeed any potential target, I imagine your vigilance has never lowered since 11 September 2001. Last week it emerged that the Foreign Office has spent £92,574 since 2010 on training courses for staff and diplomats on using social media. A frivolous expenditure, you might think, but in fact the FCO plays an essential part on Twitter in international crises, such as last year's Kenya shopping mall terrorist attack, or the Ebola epidemic.

As Matthew Rycroft, the Foreign Office's chief operating officer, tweeted the other day, the FCO's crisis centre, which co-ordinates embassy responses to events, spent 63 days in "crisis mode" in 2012. We are only at the end of August, yet the centre has spent 115 days of 2014 in crisis mode. As Rycroft tweeted: "Do we use it more as it's so good? Or is world more crisis-ridden?"

Don't call me ordinary

The findings of Alan Milburn's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission last week, that private schools have a grip on the top of society, were not surprising but still depressing. As part of the report, the commission included a number of case studies of state-school educated people who went on to jobs in politics, the law and journalism. I am ashamed to say that the commission asked me to be a case study because I went to a Liverpool comprehensive and am now The Independent on Sunday's political editor but I took umbrage at their use of the word "ordinary" to describe my background and instead wrote a comment piece about it. That's right, the chip on my shoulder is so huge I even clobbered the Social Mobility Commission with it. Sometimes shoulder chips are quite handy, though, to barge your way through life.

Meet the new boss...

Last week I wrote that the Lib Dems could only move on from the Lord Rennard saga when they got more women MPs elected. So what happened in Portsmouth South just days later, when the local party selected a candidate to replace the groping incumbent, Mike Hancock? They went for a middle-aged white man, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, instead of a brilliant female contender, Tam Langley. Vernon-Jackson has a strong record as leader of Portsmouth Council, but it's just a pity the party couldn't have been a bit more radical.