Facebook Q&A and interview: Scottish Labour candidate Sarah Boyack

If Twitter is where nuance goes to die, Facebook is where crazy lets its hair down.

The unrestricted post-length allows the angry and the aggrieved to inveigh until their heart’s content.

Into this social media bear pit stepped Sarah Boyack, Lothian MSP and contender for Scottish Labour leader, in a live question and answer session on the STV News Facebook page on Thursday.

Ms Boyack is a seasoned political operator, with extensive experience of government and opposition; so she’s more than familiar with criticism and tough questions.

But criticism follows a line of logic and questions have question marks at the end of them. Facebook’s trade in stock is snide sideswipes, ALL-CAPS accusations, and personal insults that would make Old Firm fans blanch.

Still, any communications platform is what people make of it and Facebook is the biggest social media site in the world and, alongside posts about the Great British Bake-Off and pictures of folk’s tea, many use it to talk about the hot topics of the day. It has replaced the office watercooler and the steamie before that.

So politicians, who speak so often about national conversations on this or that, cannot afford to ignore the website where most voters conduct such conversations. This is something Sarah Boyack acknowledges and her ability to weave in and out of a minefield of invective and snark during her web chat was certainly impressive.

And despite taking place on the day the Smith Commission report was published, Ms Boyack managed to do that most old-fashioned of things in Scottish politics right now: Talk about something other than the constitution.

So she took questions from members of the public on delays in fatal accident inquiries, work and disability benefit assessments, and the electoral future of Scottish Labour.

STV is holding a series of Facebook Q&As. We’ll be joined shortly by Scottish Labour leadership candidate candidate Sarah Boyack. What would you like to ask her?

Posted by STV News on Thursday, 27 November 2014

Grilled – she’d have been burned at the stake if some of the more belligerent inquisitors had had their way – on Scottish Labour’s lack of autonomy from the UK party, she argued that the powers of Holyrood could be used to cut a distinctive path.

She told “Ally Aye Mltn”: “Our policies for the Scottish Parliament are agreed by our members in Scotland. We’re already talking about how we believe the powers in the Scottish Parliament could be better used, for example to create more jobs and training opportunities for young people, to make the living wage compulsory for public sector procurement and to end zero hours contracts. I’d also want to tackle the fact that rents have gone up by 40% over the last four years.”

Here is a Labour politician determined to move on from constitutional wrangling and start using the powers of the Scottish Parliament productively and progressively. Whether the Smith Commission settlement is satisfying enough to a divided electorate to allow that remains to be seen but in Sarah Boyack Scottish Labour has someone with the ideas and experience to get the party back onto the social justice agenda.

The leadership contest has been pitched as a left-right battle between trade union favourite Neil Findlay and Blairite MP Jim Murphy but Ms Boyack’s politics are less ideological and seem more geared towards what works and what helps. Still, her left-of-centre credentials are in no doubt. She is a lifelong Labour campaigner, a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights, and as transport minister under Henry McLeish introduced one of the most popular policies of devolution: free bus passes for the over-60s and people with disabilities.

She talks with some passion about an internationalist progressive politics, pointing to the Scottish doctors and aid workers who have gone to west Africa to fight the Ebola crisis and Scotland’s relationship, started under Jack McConnell, with Malawi.

Far from the madding, and maddening, crowd of Facebook, she talks to me about her vision for Scottish Labour. It is a social democratic one – she describes herself as a socialist – and coalesces around what has been the Big Idea of her leadership campaign, a new energy infrastructure programme.

Outlining her proposals, she says: “We could create thousands of jobs if we had a proper national infrastructure programme on energy efficiency. There are particular challenges we’ve got in Scotland. We’ve got a colder, rougher climate but we’ve also got a lot of people who are not connected to the gas grid, so energy prices for them are expanding at a rate of noughts.

“In the Western Isles, we don’t just have fuel poverty, we have extreme fuel poverty. So it’s something that could be relevant across the country; it’s about creating new jobs and apprenticeships. There are a lot of small companies who could be very effective if we had a national programme.”

This, she says, must be backed up by investment in renewables as a climate-positive and cost-effective way of driving down energy bills.

She tells me: “The other thing I’d like to do is make the most of the renewables technology that’s out there. If you’re in the rest of Europe, a lot of those technologies are seen as day-to-day technologies. We got companies that build renewables kits in Scotland that don’t have a market in Scotland. We got to change that.

“So, there’s jobs for the private sector in the renewables industry. There’s a whole raft of opportunities in terms of improving people’s lives. There are still people who are in debt from last year’s Christmas expenditure so sorting out the cost of fuel and getting in a Labour government would freeze people’s bills. But in the long term it’s got to be about making people’s houses more energy efficient.”

While the SNP-run administration at Holyrood talks of “holding Westminster’s feet to the fire” over more powers for MSPs, Ms Boyack wants to hold ministers’ feet to the fire on social and economic policy. Commentators have predicted that whoever emerges victorious in the Scottish Labour leadership contest faces the daunting task of taking on a popular Nationalist First Minister who speaks sincerely and convincingly about equality and fairness. Former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell, under whom Ms Boyack served in the transport and environment briefs, recently warned his party that while Alex Salmond was “essentially a right-wing populist posing as a social democrat”, his successor actually “is a social democrat”.

She sees the task as one of challenging the Scottish Government on what she deems its inauthentically progressive policies, such as the council tax freeze which is considered regressive by a wide range of critics.

She explains: “Our job as the key opposition party is holding the Scottish Government to account and asking the tough questions. For example, I have the brief of local government in the Scottish Parliament and for seven-and-a-half years we’ve had an underfunded council tax freeze. That means we’ve lost 70,000 jobs in local government; we’ve lost services that people on low incomes and modest incomes rely on; there are now charges for services that used to be free.

“So I think we have to dig in and call out the SNP for not having done enough to support people on low and modest incomes. Particularly in the aftermath of the bankers’ crash, people are struggling to make ends meet and that’s why the fact that the SNP haven’t moved fast on the living wage – there’s more that could have been done over the past few years – and an anti-poverty strategy needs to cut right across government.”

There was a jarring note in our chat, a turn of phrase that caught me off-guard and captured the seismic changes afoot in Scottish politics. Ms Boyack told me she wanted “to make Scottish Labour a force in Scottish politics again” and I was struck by the awesome unrealness of this moment we’re living in. Scottish Labour, once the political wing of the Scottish people, has fallen from grace. It has lost the last two elections to the Scottish Parliament, in 2011 by a landslide that saw the SNP take seat after seat in Labour’s central belt heartlands. The polls predict a drubbing in next May’s general election, with one survey putting their MP contingent down to just four. Its referendum alliance with the Tories against independence seems to be costing Labour dearly amongst previously rock-solid demographics.

Who, under such circumstances, would want to be Scottish Labour leader? Ms Boyack recognises the problem but she sounds single-minded about tackling the challenges head-on.

She tells me: “We need to rebuild, we need to reach out and talk to people whether they voted Yes or No in the referendum.

“We need to reconnect with our traditional Labour voters but we also have to relate to people who haven’t currently got a fixed party. There were a large number of people voting in the referendum who weren’t tied to any one party.

“With the experience I’ve got, having served in the first cabinet with Donald Dewar and then for Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell as well as being in our front-bench team for the last seven-and-a-half years, I know we need to be a sharper opposition and we need to be working now to set out a policy programme for 2016.

“So if I was leader of Scottish Labour, those would be my priorities. We need to rebuild, reconnect, and get back on the front foot again.”

However the internal leadership election goes, Scottish Labour could do with some of Sarah Boyack’s passion and determination.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Murray Cheek by Creative Commons 3.0.

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