The cracks in sisterly solidarity over period poverty were disappointing to see

Written by Dani Garavelli on 25 October 2017 in Comment

Dani Garavelli: The clamour to take credit for policy victories is understandable but to an outsider it looks like a battle of egos

Dani Garavelli - image credit: Nick Grigg

One of the things I like most about Holyrood is the way female MSPs have, by and large, put party differences aside when it comes to issues relating to women.

By working, if not together, then at least in tandem, on the 50:50 campaign for equal gender representation and against the rape clause, Scottish Labour and SNP MSPs have demonstrated there is much to be gained from overcoming tribal instincts.

Much of that has been down to the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, both committed feminists who watched each other’s backs when it came to sexism. It has been bolstered by the work of grassroots groups like Women for Independence (WfI) and feminist think tanks and lobby organisations like Engender and Scottish Women’s Aid. Such research-backed cross-party collaboration produced the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill, now making its way through parliament.


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It was disappointing, then, to see cracks appearing in the sisterly solidarity after Nicola Sturgeon unveiled details of the Scottish Government’s plans to tackle period poverty by providing free sanitary protection in schools.

The announcement, which came on the back of intense campaigning by WfI, Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon and SNP MSP Gillian Martin, was good news, yet provoked a counterproductive Twitter squabble.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of that spat; it was all quite petty and boring. Suffice to say that Lennon, who has introduced a member’s bill for universal access to free sanitary protection, and SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth engaged in tit-for-tat jibes over which party deserved most credit.

For what it’s worth, the timeline goes something like this: WfI set the ball rolling, carrying out a survey on period poverty in maternity hospitals back in 2015 (before Martin and Lennon were elected). That campaign led to the inclusion of sanitary towels in the Scottish Government’s baby boxes. Martin was the first MSP to mention the issue in the Scottish Parliament, Lennon the first to put down a motion, while WfI has continued campaigning throughout.

But, really, the precise timing is immaterial. All three deserve praise for raising awareness and pushing the issue up the political agenda. They should take pride in the fact their combined efforts produced a government policy that will improve the lives of many young women.

Unfortunately, this kind of partisan jostling has been much in evidence since the last Holyrood election. Earlier this month, for example, the SNP announced it would change its moratorium on fracking to a ban, which is what Scottish Labour, the Scottish Greens and Scottish Liberal Democrats wanted (last year they joined forces to out-vote the SNP on the matter).

But now Labour MSP Claudia Beamish says a ban implemented through planning regulations, as the SNP has proposed, doesn’t go far enough and she is pushing ahead with her bill to impose a “full legal ban”.  As a result, we could see SNP MSPs, who support a ban, voting against a bill to introduce a ban. This is a waste of energy which could be channelled into something more productive.

At the same time, the leader of North Ayrshire Council has accused Sturgeon of “nicking” three of the local authority’s policies: funding of free sanitary protection in schools, the setting up of an energy firm, and the exemption of care leavers from paying council tax.

Up to a point, this clamouring for credit is understandable. On an individual level, politicians need to make sure their achievements are visible so they are voted back in at the next election.

On a party level, too, you can see Scottish Labour might feel defensive as it watches the Jeremy Corbyn effect being diluted by an SNP shift to the left.

But the notion of a policy idea being stolen by the government is an odd one; for a start, politics, like journalism, is susceptible to the zeitgeist. Every now and then, there will be a buzz around a particular demographic or issue and everyone wants a piece of the action. With so many politicians focusing on the same patch, it is hardly surprising if there is some overlap in the policies they come up with.

Scotland, for example, has been in the vanguard of the introduction of baby boxes, but there are pilot schemes all over England and the US; and all of those pilots have ‘stolen’ the idea from Finland. No one country – or party – has the monopoly on an idea or the right to campaign.

In addition, putting pressure on the government to adopt policies they favour is what opposition parties are supposed to do. If they come up with something they believe will change things for the better and the Scottish Government comes round to their way of thinking, their job is done.

This is what happened with the ban on smoking in enclosed public places. In 2004, the SNP’s Stewart Maxwell brought in a member’s bill, which the then Scottish Labour/Lib Dem coalition opposed. When it became clear public opinion supported it, the executive brought in its own bill, with a minimum of whinging from the SNP.

Now history records the smoking ban as a dividend of the Labour/Lib Dem administration, which is arguably unfair. But to an outside observer, an undignified wrangle over who did most to secure it looks like a battle of egos; it creates the impression politicians are motivated less by a desire to create a better world than by a desire for kudos.

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