“With the lonely exception of Alistair Darling. . .the Scottish Labour Party often seems lost.” Photo: Getty
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In Scotland, Labour flounders as the centre right rises

In a damaging move for its future prospects in Scotland, Labour has vacated the main battleground from which it should have been able to rebuild support: devolution.

The phrase “The Scottish Tories are having a good campaign” was one that could not have been written – other than in jest – for two decades. The party had been in the doldrums in Scotland since it was wiped out in the Blair tidal wave of 1997: irrelevant, ignored, unloved. But no more. In the campaign to save the Union, the Conservatives are on the right side of the argument. They are confident and comfortable in their unionism and have had important and distinctive things to say. In Ruth Davidson, they have a young, dynamic leader who is quietly building a powerful team around her, attracting new people into the party.

At the same time, under the intense scrutiny that has accompanied the coming referendum, we are learning more about what Scots really think. It turns out that the country is far from a repressed social democracy held back by the English yoke, as imagined by Caledonia’s dreamers, and that Scottish so ial attitudes are not so different from those south of the border. One poll in May found that over 68 per cent of Scots favour stricter controls on immigration, that 49 per cent favour leaving
the EU or are “neutral” about doing so and that 62 per cent support making benefits available only to those who have lived in Scotland for more than five years.

Perhaps we should not have been surprised by the election of Scotland’s first Ukip MEP, David Coburn, in the European elections in May. With polling evidence such as this, there is no reason to think that parties of the centre right could not thrive in Scotland.

By contrast – with the lonely exception of Alistair Darling, who has exuded a calm authority even through the rockiest moments of the campaign – the Scottish Labour Party often seems lost. It is in denial about the scale of its defeat to the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Scottish election and in torment about how or, in some quarters, even whether to fight for a No vote in September’s referendum. This was exemplified by Margaret Curran, the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, who, speaking on the BBC’s Question Time, could offer as a reason for voting No to independence little else than that no one hates the Tories more than she does.

Labour’s job in the independence referendum campaign is to get people voting. That is why the battle bus and soapbox of the party’s East Renfrewshire MP, Jim Murphy, are important and it is why old-school figures such as Frank Roy have been brought in to direct the ground campaign at Better Together HQ. Yet Labour has left it to others to do the thinking as to why we should vote No.

More damaging to its future prospects in Scotland, it has vacated the main battleground from which it should have been able to rebuild support: devolution. Devolution is overwhelmingly popular in Scotland and it was Labour that delivered it. Yet it became clear long before Alex Salmond’s electoral success in 2007 that,
having delivered the Scottish Parliament, Labour had no idea what to do with it. It is as if devolution was entirely instrumental: either to “kill nationalism stone dead”, as George Robertson, the former Nato secretary general, fatuously declared, or to protect Scotland from the worst misdeeds of Tory rule. (“What about the bedroom tax?” the SNP retorts.) Its instrumental worth having crashed, what is devolution for?

This is the question on which Scottish Labour has foundered: it does not know the answer. The Scottish Tories, on the other hand, have finally realised that devolution will not go away. So why not try to make it work? Fortune is smiling on them because how you make devolution work if you are on the centre right aligns perfectly with what Scots say they now want when it comes to “more powers for Holyrood”. With the Scottish Parliament budget approaching £36bn, the share of public expenditure for which it is responsible is on a par with the German Länder. But even after the fiscal provisions of the Scotland Act 2012 come fully into force in 2016, Holyrood will be responsible for raising only a fraction of its budget.

Scots say they want taxation to be controlled by Holyrood as well as by Westminster. The Tories have seen that if you want to move the conversation in Scotland from “What shall we spend it on now?” to “How do we act responsibly?” you need a parliament with its own tax-raising powers. There is little point being a tax-cutting politician in a parliament with no tax powers. Labour gave birth to devolution but the Conservatives are best placed to nurture it to maturity.

Adam Tomkins is the John Millar Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA