Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale was angry when she spoke in the Scottish Parliament yesterday on the effects of austerity on those already hit hardest. Speaking specifically on the family cap (a two-child limit for tax credits) and the rape clause (which requires women who have given birth to a child as a result of rape to sign a declaration and provide evidence in order gain an exemption), the debate reminded us that women are often the worst victims of Conservative politics.
Yesterday’s Holyrood debate brought into the spotlight one way in which gender and politics intersect, and raised questions over the role of gender in the ongoing local and general election campaigns.
This is not about female leaders or male leaders, leaders who identify as heterosexual or leaders who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. It’s about the gendered effects of political decisions and how the performance of gender can be used for good or for bad.
In April 2017, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon spoke at the United Nations and explained:
‘The Government I lead is committed to tackling violence against women, closing the gender pay gap, and ensuring more women work in careers that have traditionally been seen as careers for men like engineering. We also want to encourage more men to work in careers that have often been seen as the preserve of women like childcare and teaching’.
This intelligent discussion of gender issues highlighted the need to tackle issues most specific to women (such as domestic violence and the gender pay gap) as well as themes that impact both women and men.
Although the SNP look likely to do well in local elections this month and retain most of the seats won in the 2015 general election (95% of all Scottish constituencies), competition will come from Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives. Yet, Sturgeon’s discussion of gender at the UN differs radically from the imagery emerging from the Scottish Conservatives.
Tory party strategists are unashamedly following two lines of attack: (i) the local and general elections are only about independence, to such an extent that some candidates make no mention of local issues in their leaflets (ii) Davidson is the only person strong enough to take the fight to the SNP.
Davidson’s already hard image has been cranked-up this month, putting herself forward as the only candidate with the strength and vigour to save the Union.
The latest poster campaign features Davidson staring coldly at the viewer, telling them ‘WE SAID NO WE MEANT IT’ (see above). In campaign literature, the Tories accuse the SNP of ‘running scared’ and becoming a ‘laughing stock’. These playground taunts eschew policies in place of a politics rooted in the age of toughness.
Davidson’s position is weakened when she finds herself a mouthpiece for Tory policies, such as Brexit and cuts to public services – standing tall and and talking tough is an easy fallback.
Even though politicians’ use and performance of gender differs, let’s keep speaking about gender throughout the 2017 elections.
However, at the same time, let’s leave the machismo politics of Ruth Davidson and the Scottish Conservatives in the past.