10668906_328475067326712_244829102761671118_oEarly this year the Scottish government backed down on plans to build a new ‘super-prison’ for female offenders. Though Scottish Labour, late to the party, tried to claim the victory, it was clear that the campaign had been driven by Women for Independence. They had quickly mobilised a campaign, using expert evidence to back their argument and an online petition to build support. In pursuing such campaigns, they can draw on an organised network of local groups and activists, and a good grasp of social media. That, potentially, is a formidable political force.

Other campaigns have included garnering cross-party support against sexism in politics and taking on the ‘all-male panel’ phenomenon on TV – “Because we’re tired of the same pale, stale and male faces on our screens.” Now they’re taking on the court system with the Justice for Women campaign run by the seemingly indefatigable Maggie Mellon and others.

The focus on current issues (rather than just ‘indyref2′)- was clear at WfI’s recent National Council in Alloa last week. Workshops covered fracking, carers, land reform and child poverty, followed by a constructive discussion on prostitution and sex work. This aim of ‘sisterly’ debate and building safe spaces for political discussion and activism is one of the reasons so many women have felt at home and flourished in the organisation.

Sandra Douglas ran a workshop on the ‘Back to School Bank’ – an initiative she wants to see replicated all over the country – which aims to ensure that no child feels ostracised or disadvantaged because they don’t have new clothes or equipment when they start the new school term. I asked her what the role of Women for Independence should be now? “Projects – things that the government are not doing. When you have groups in every community, changing things on the ground, the impact could be phenomenal.”

Another delegate said that for her, Women for Independence was always about the issues affecting the lives of women – with independence as a means to tackling these rather than the end goal. “It’s about independent women more than women for independence – that’s why campaigning on issues is important.” Her friend added, “We’re building that political energy, moving it forwards through campaigns. It could easily dissipate otherwise.”

Another delegate said that for her, Women for Independence was always about the issues affecting the lives of women – with independence as a means to tackling these rather than the end goal. “It’s about independent women more than women for independence – that’s why campaigning on issues is important.” Her friend added, “We’re building that political energy, moving it forwards through campaigns. It could easily dissipate otherwise.”

There was a notable absence of saltires, or – thankfully – unicorns; I also didn’t hear much talk of the next referendum. The commitment to independence is there of course, but so is the tagline ‘independence for women’. Delegates at the National Council seemed to be more focused what could be done here and now. National organiser Kathleen Caskie noted that of all the blogs they’ve posted in recent months, not one has been on constitutional issues. “It’s about empowering individual women, and also about wider issue-based campaigns. There’s no ‘normal’ for Women for Indy”, she said.

There are certainly plenty of devolved issues to be making a noise about. The land reform workshop I helped to run was busy and everyone wanted to speak. The discussion focused on practical measures: strengthening the disappointing legislation, campaigning visibly and effectively. ‘My MSP didn’t think land reform was something he needed to know about, with us being in an urban area’, said one participant. ‘Well – he certainly knows now!’. The hesitance you sometimes find around land reform – the perception that it’s a complicated, legalistic issue for experts – was not in evidence in Alloa. Nor in Maryhill the week before.

So can politics be done differently? Certainly it’s been my experience, over the last two years, that women can lead the way in this. During the referendum I ran some of WfI’s ‘listening events’ in Shetland. The openness, kindness and curiosity at these meetings stood in stark contrast to the male-dominated Yes and SNP meetings I had attended, and it felt like a breath of fresh air.

Before the outrage starts, let me add that in my view, this is not because women are inherently less confrontational than men; gender norms are learnt and can be un-learnt. But it certainly made all the difference for me, and for so many women I’ve spoken to since – having a safe space in which to discuss the issues was what kept many from giving up and leaving the shouty men to it.

For Dr Marsha Scott, a WfI National Committee member, it’s that ‘listening not telling’ approach that makes the organisation so welcoming and diverse, especially for women new to politics. “That cycle of speaking and listening is really critical. I’ve done women’s politics for 30 years and I’ve done nothing this exciting, not even close”, she says happily.

Speaking at the Alloa conference, founding member Jeane Freeman was optimistic about the possibility that next year’s elections will see WfI members taking the promise of ‘doing politics differently’ into the parliament. The tribalism which has characterised Scottish politics must be put to one side, she argued; there are just “too many important issues on which we must work together”. It’s an admirable aim – the sniping in Holyrood does nothing to inspire confidence in politics, let alone tackle the pressing issues facing this unequal country.

Freeman is one of several WfI members standing for election next year. Perhaps inevitably then, elections were a recurring topic at the National Council event. Those women who’ve taken the plunge into electoral politics face significant obstacles of cost, childcare and ingrained sexism in party structures in this mission and maybe one of the roles Women for Independence will play is supporting them.

But with nearly half the National Committee members either SNP candidates or active members, plus an elected SNP MP in the form of Natalie McGarry, there are questions around the neutrality of the organisation. Of all those standing for election there is just one Scottish Green Party candidate, and no SSP/RISE affiliates. I raised the issue with Marsha Scott. “It would be naive to think that this kind of thing doesn’t cause tensions”, she said. “But we’re going to find a way to work through it. That’s what doing politics differently is about: how to disagree in a sisterly fashion.”

And perhaps with the huge increase in SNP membership, and around half of voters siding with them in May, it’s not surprising that Women for Independence organisers reflect that trend in their own affiliations. But as we shift from General Election to Holyrood election (and then gear up for 2017’s local elections), is election fatigue not a real danger? For those not so involved in party politics, the talk of selection panels and regional lists might get a bit wearing in the coming months.

Because arguably, the campaigning side of things could be just as exciting as electoral politics. There’s been no coherent or constructive opposition since Scottish Labour’s demise (and realistically, well before that). A cross-party, independent campaigning force run by women committed to social justice and real change is a fantastic prospect, and one that’s sorely needed.

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