Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy speaking in Glasgow on December 15, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is Labour starting to turn the tide in Scotland?

For the first time since the referendum, the polls show a swing against the SNP. 

Since the independence referendum, the news from Scotland for Labour has been unremittingly grim. Despite their double-digit defeat, the nationalists moved with remarkable ease to frame the debate that followed. "They had a plan and we didn't," one shadow cabinet minister told me recently. While Nicola Sturgeon seamlessly replaced Alex Salmond as First Minister and SNP leader, Scottish Labour collapsed into crisisA succession of polls gave the nationalists a lead of more than 20 points as Holyrood and Westminster voting intention aligned. The election of Jim Murphy as the party's new leader in December failed to produce any early dividend; Labour appeared on course to lose as many as half of its 40 Scottish seats (not assuming a uniform swing). 

But last weekend brought rare cause for hope. A new survey by Panelbase (the nationalists' pollster of choice) put the SNP's lead down from 17 points to 10 (41-31) - its smallest advantage for three months. Another poll, conducted by Survation for the Daily Record, showed the party's lead falling from 24 points to 20 (46-26). To be sure, these are merely two snapshots and the SNP's lead remains of a level that would have been considered remarkable in the pre-referendum era. But they are the first indication that the nationalists' advance may not be inexorable. Labour has long hoped to win back the "red nats" by framing the general election as a straight choice between a Labour government or a Conservative one. As a shadow cabinet minister observed to me, by ruling out any deal with the Tories in a hung parliament, but refusing to do so in the case of Labour, the SNP has implicitly conceded that the latter is superior to the former. 

There are some signs that the collapse in the price of oil - to the point where it may become unprofitable for North Sea firms to produce - has harmed the nationalists' cause. The Panelbase poll found that 22 per cent of SNP supporters believe that the crisis has weakened the case for independence. The party's traditional claim that Scotland's black gold would compensate for its inferior fiscal position is even less persuasive than before. 

But Labour figures make no attempt to diminish the scale of the task that remains. One Scottish Labour MP told me: "The emotional fallout from the referendum is as damaging for us as the poll tax was for the Tories in the 1980s." The sight of Labour fighting alongside Conservatives in defence of the Union is one that some of its traditional supporters will not forgive or forget. Murphy is regarded by most in the party as having performed exceptionally since becoming leader, bringing much-needed competence and vigour to the party. But Labour MPs believe, in the words of one that, that "our biggest opponent is time". With only a few months to reverse the SNP's huge advance, most would settle for a dozen losses. Against this, one SNP source told me that the party stood to gain a minimum of six from Labour and a maximum of 17, with the former more likely. The nationalists are more optimistic in the case of the Liberal Democrats, They believe they can win 10-11 Lib Dem seats if just a quarter of the party's 2010 vote swings its way (a result that would leave just Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael standing). 

All agree, however, that Labour will lose MPs in Scotland, an area where it had previously hoped to make gains (or at least hold its 2010 level). In a close election, the danger remains that the party's hopes of victory could die in the country where it was born. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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