"Just say yes". The latest edition of the Economist magazine has committed a brief article to the nascent Women for Independence group. Overall, it's a scrappy sort of piece, with much to quibble about in it, its ideas provisionally expressed, and sketchily. That said, every conversation has to start somewhere, and the issues dealt with in the piece are both pressing, and tricky. Why is support for independence lower amongst women than men? And following hotly on the tails of that question, another, more practically-oriented one: what steps can YesScotland and pro-nationalists take to convince more women to embrace independence?
I was particularly relieved to hear from Kate Higgins that the crudely gendered colour palette which the Economist suggests the group would be employing - bubblegum "pink literature" - is fictional too. No fuchsia mailshots and, tragically, no tupperware. One particular section of the article caught my eye. Between quotes from Natalie McGarry, John Curtice and Margaret Curran, the author briskly assessed the First Minister's appeal to women in the following, less than glowing terms:
"Perhaps this feminine touch will help [to convince women to vote "yes"], as women appear to be put off by the muscular language in which male politicians clothe their arguments for independence. Female voters have never been too keen anyway on Alex Salmond, the brusque if charismatic leader of the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and first minister of the Scottish government."
This is a familiar story, which many folk seem to find instinctively compelling. Yonks back, before the 2011 Holyrood election, the same thought speedily occurred to the Spectator's Alex Massie, who (admittedly only partially) accounted for the substantial gender gap then showing in support for the SNP in terms of female antipathies towards the Maximum Eck...
"To be fair, Salmond can do the retail side of politics. But again, I suspect there are some women put off by his Smart-Eckness and who find his chummyness mildly creepy."
I'm sure a score of pertinent anecdotes speed to mind, of unhappy meetings with the man, or disliked tics which have prompted rolled eyes and acid put downs from aunts, cousins, sisters and skeptical female friends who don't much care for how the First Minister comports himself. But is there any evidence to back up the Economist's suggestion - presented as incontroverble - that Salmond is a liability when it comes to the distaff side of the Scottish electorate, that they're not "keen" on him? The interesting thing is, there isn't a terrifically strong body of opinion which suggests that women don't like Salmond. Indeed, if polls are to be believed, the opposite is actually the case and that the most take a generally favourable view. Scots polls include the personal ratings of our politicians on a more or less occasional basis, certainly less than Cameron, Clegg and Miliband's fortunes are tallied, so we have at best a semi-regular assessment of what respondents make of Salmond, and how this might be disaggregated in gendered terms.
Ipsos-MORI is the pollster of choice here. They reported the findings of their most recent Scottish Opinion Monitor poll in June, finding that a total of 53% of respondents declared themselves satisfied with Alex Salmond's performance as First Minister, compared to 40% who were dissatisfied, and an indecisive 7% who couldn't say whether he was up to snuff or not. Did positivity break down by gender, as the Economist would have us expect? Not exactly. The pollster found:
As you can see, there's clearly an enthusiasm gap, with male satisfaction with Salmond running nine points higher than amongst women respondents, but that said, there's no substantial increase in female negativity about the First Minister either. Disappointment in his performance in office is separated by a much scrawnier 2% between the genders, with undecided women making up most of the difference. This is just one poll, you might well say, and the trend's the thing. Never knowingly to be outdone in the department for political geekery, to satisfy my curiosity I've taken a wee trawl through Ipsos-MORI's archive of findingson Salmond's popularity, where the raw data could be broken down by gender. This takes us back as far as November 2009. After that, the data becomes more illusive and scrappy.
I've put together three charts, illustrating the pollster's findings, and how these have changed over time. The first is the combined chart, showing the percentages of men and women respectively who said they were satisfied, dissatisfied, or who didn't know what to make of Salmond's performance over the period. Male responses are represented by the triangled lines, women's by the white-dotted circles. Satisfaction is rendered in blue, dissatisfaction in green, and don't knows in light orange.
In case that's difficult to handle, we can also pull the gendered data into two separate charts, showing how enthusiasm has gained and waned for him over time, amongst men and women respectively.
And the women:
Both forceps-shaped charts tell a similar story, with Salmond securing positive satisfied ratings from both genders in eight of nine polls going back to late 2009. His positive ratings amongst both sexes have been on a shallow downward incline since the peak of August and December 2011, and negative ratings increasing over the same period. At the moment, he's being pinched by falling positive ratings, and increasing negative ones from men and women both. Neatly mirroring the independence polling that partly encouraged the coalition of Women for Independence to put themselves in the field, we see less enthusiasm for the First Minister from women than men across these polls. Where dissatisfaction about his performance has grown, the findings from men and women have (for the main) tracked one another very closely (January's poll of this year being something of an exception). In polling terms at least, there's little evidence here that women feel substantially more negative about Salmond than men, though the idea they're less keen on him is given some substance.
Cue a number of pertinent cavils. Firstly, it'd be wrong to conflate fondness for the man with the idea that the man is making a satisfactory fist of his duties in Bute House. I'm sure most of us can think of folk who are perfect bastards or contemptible toads who we'd still credit as admirable workers, their capacity and talents for graft not to be disputed, despite sustained misgivings we might nurse about their personalities, values, or fundamental character traits. This in mind, the polls aren't exactly fatal to the Economist's theory. Women may well not like the man, but applying their nosepegs, and discriminating between the alternatives, they're willing, grudgingly, to say that he's doing a satisfactory job in office. That theory certainly isn't inconsistent with this polling, but it does show that if this is what is going on - women aren't proving shy about setting aside those negative assessments, and reaching a positive view about the First Minister's performance anyway.