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'We knew that if women did not claim our space we would be sidelined ...'

CAROLYN Leckie describes herself as "really p***ed off" until the referendum came along.

Carolyn Leckie says the debate surrounding the independence referendum hasrevitalised her interest in Scottish politicsPhotograph: Mark Mainz
Carolyn Leckie says the debate surrounding the independence referendum hasrevitalised her interest in Scottish politicsPhotograph: Mark Mainz

Voted out of Holyrood in 2007, the ex-Scottish Socialist Party MSP had found a new career in the voluntary sector and completed a part-time law degree. But politics? Forget it.

Her party membership lapsed, and even the memory of parliament gave her "heebie jeebies".

It was quite a change for Leckie, who in 2003 was one of five mad-keen upstarts elected alongside the SSP's then leader Tommy Sheridan. It was hailed as the start of a new era, the birth of a rainbow parliament, but there was no pot of workers' gold at the end of it.

Within a term the SSP fell apart as Sheridan recklessly sued the News of the World for exposing his seedy private life.

Leckie starred at the subsequent perjury trial. "You're Walter Mitty," she said to his face. But there was no uplift from his conviction.

The long grind of the SSP's decline, the bitterness of former allies, and the constant struggle to have the Left take gender issues as seriously as class issues, took their toll. "I couldn't be bothered with it any more," the 49-year-old tells the Sunday Herald.

"I felt that if I didn't get involved in anything else for the rest of my entire life, it would be because there wasn't something to inspire me. But then the referendum did."

Out of that inspiration came Women for Independence (WFI), the group co-founded by Leckie to ensure women can speak and be listened to in the referendum debate, with the overall goal of getting more women to vote Yes.

Mirroring the argument for independence itself, WFI is about "self-organisation", she says.

"We knew that if women didn't claim our space we would be sidelined. The media debate defaults to men obsessed with the currency and the EU, not the progressive arguments that dominate public discussions.

"We wanted an autonomous women's movement. People either get that women are treated unequally in society or they don't.

"Until society is equal for women, then women, like black, minority and ethnic groups, or disabled people or LGBT people, or anybody not privileged by the society they live in, will have to self-organise until that changes.

"That's what we are doing."

WFI now has 40 local groups and 1000 members holding informal gatherings across the country. Working-class women are the key audience.

"It's about women talking to women they already know, and using the networks that they've got and building them. It's got women who might not have been involved before using their voices and using their power.

"It can be transformative. The same way as being involved in strike action. It changes lives, creates a bond between people and new ways of seeing things, new confidence, new independence. For me personally it's given me optimism back in politics as a whole.

"Women are disillusioned by professional politics and turned off by that style of male-dominated debating and point-scoring."

It sounds like a definition of Alex Salmond?

"He's very effective, but I think that Nicola Sturgeon is even more effective," she says, with uncharacteristic restraint.

DismisseD by Unionists as a cynical bribe to women voters, Leckie reckons the SNP's promise of a post-Yes transformation in childcare is "authentic" rather than a gimmick, but "a start" rather than the be-all and end-all.

"To tackle low and unequal pay we need the powers ourselves. I don't see Westminster ever doing it. I can't guarantee an independent Scottish Parliament would do it, but I have hope that it would be more likely. Westminster is a huge ceiling of male-dominated privilege, and while women would not be liberated and equal overnight with independence, you would be removing probably the most stultifying male-privileged institution that overhangs women's lives."

But for all the talk, judged by its own bottom line of getting more women to vote Yes, surely WFI has been a huge failure?

Two years on, there's still a ten-point gender gap in the polls, with the female 52% of the electorate more likely to vote No than men. Leckie denies WFI isn't cutting it, and says that although its meetings have reported fears about a costly "transition" to independence, women are inspired by the long-term vision.

"There is still a gender gap, but it's shifting. People are attracted by a sniff of hope, power, responsibility, a chance to change things. There's been a culture of 'there's nae point'. Independence is convincing a lot of people there might just be a point."

So will it be a Yes vote on September 18? "It's do-able, but it would be quite revolutionary to be honest," she admits. "It might be a process. I'm realistic."

If it is a No, WFI may evolve into a lobbying group for equal female representation at Holyrood, where only one-third of MSPs are women (it's barely one-fifth of MPs at Westminster).

"This is not going to go away. Whatever your views on it, the existence of the referendum has sparked off a democratic revival.

"There's never been a more advantageous time for women to push an equality agenda."

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