Neil Findlay has no business being a politician.
The brickie turned housing officer turned teacher turned MSP didn’t come up through the special adviser/policy wonk ranks like so many parliamentarians today.
And it shows. He doesn’t talk like a career politician, in it for power and position. That sincerity shouldn’t be confused for the poisonous anti-politics mood that has seized the nation. Mr Findlay is no crass populist; he clearly loves politics. It’s just that for him politics has a purpose beyond tactics and strategy and playing the game. He’s in it for more earthly reasons. He wants to do things.
As Margaret Thatcher, not someone of whom Mr Findlay was overly fond, once put it: “In my day, people would resolve to do something, now they resolve to be someone.”
Findlay falls decidedly into the former category and I was keen to hear about his vision for Scottish Labour, the party he is bidding to lead, so I asked if we could meet for an interview.
He arrives at STV armed with a glass bottle filled with a congealed brown substance and immediately asks to see John MacKay.
Now, I concede there may be one or two poor souls out there not taken by the charms of our anchorman — the sort of people who stick a W on the start of that term, which isdefinitely not clever. Heh. — but surely the MSP wasn’t about to deliver ginger bottle justice for one Will Ferrell tweet too many.
Blootering the Nation’s Most Beloved Newsreader (as we’re contractually obliged to describe him) could seriously damage Findlay’s bid to head up Scottish Labour. Or possibly springboard him into the lead.
Thankfully my fears were unfounded. The Lothian MSP had brought the Glasgow lad one of the capital’s famed delicacies, chippie sauce — a concoction of brown sauce and vinegar that lies at the heart of the great East-West condimental divide: salt ‘n’ vinegar or salt ‘n’ sauce.
Mr MacKay raised hopes of an eventual two-sauce solution to this long-running conflict by graciously accepting the gift and no one pointed out that Mr Findlay is Scottish Labour’s health spokesman and probably shouldn’t be promoting such nutritionally questionable products.
This illustrates what I mean about Findlay. He’s a normal guy and acts like it. There is nothing stage-managed or focus-grouped about him.
Why, then, does he want to be leader of Scottish Labour, a party that doesn’t have its sorrows to seek.
However, he is far from downcast and says: “It’s a tremendous opportunity. I love the Labour Party and I’ve been in it since I was 18 years old. We need to get the Labour Party back into a position where we can win again in Scotland. The life experience I have, the drive and determination, but most of all the policy agenda that I’m putting forward, that’s starting to excite people.
“I’ve had a thousand people volunteer to help me in my campaign. That’s an astonishing number of people. I’m not an arrogant person; I don’t believe they’re joining up because it’s me. They’re joining up because they’re excited about the policy agenda.”
That policy agenda is bold, far bolder than Labour has been in Scotland or anywhere else in the UK for many years. He wants to scrap Trident, renationalise the railways, build 50,000 council and social houses, end youth unemployment, and legislate a new Charter of Workers’ Rights that bans zero-hours contracts, upgrades the minimum wage to the living wage, cracks down on corporate culpable homicide, and establishes a public inquiry into trade union blacklisting.
Findlay is not, you might have guessed by this point, of a New Labour inclination. He is intensely relaxed about redistributing wealth.
The most left-wing candidate in the field, Findlay is a clause four man. He believes in the transformative power of collective action. He talks class. He launched his candidacy in a speech to a miners’ welfare club that was trailed in the Morning Star. So it’s not surprising when he insists: “I’m not a social democrat. I’m not a democratic socialist. I’m a socialist.”
But what does socialism mean to him?
He explains: “For me it’s never been something I’ve learned about from a textbook. It’s about how I’ve lived my life and what I’ve experienced in my community and that’s a mining community where the values of community and solidarity and justice and compassion and looking out for your fellow human being is ingrained in that community. That for me is what socialism is about.”
This is why the Better Together campaign frustrated him during the referendum. Findlay had always advocated a Labour anti-independence campaign that put social justice at the heart of the case for the United Kingdom. The cross-party Better Together organisation, which saw Labour MSPs share a platform with their Conservative opponents, failed to offer voters a radical alternative to both Tory austerity and SNP parochialism.
Findlay puts it bluntly: “If you don’t have a job, if you’re living in poor housing conditions, if the community round about you doesn’t feel supportive, and if you’re relying on food banks to feed your family, being told ‘Oh by the way, you’re better together’ means nothing to you. Why would someone vote No when they had a feeling that their life couldn’t get any worse?
“We did not give them a vision as to what our alternative was. That was the glaring missed opportunity. People have to feel that they’ve got hope. Labour has to be about giving people hope. We have to get back to the place where we are representing ordinary working people and their aspirations for themselves and their family.”
His voice grows grave as he adds: “If we don’t, I think we are in trouble.”
I push him to explain what he means by this cryptic warning.
“No political party has the divine right to exist. It doesn’t have the divine right to win seats at elections. You’ve got to work for that, you’ve got to earn the votes of every voter and you’ve got to earn their respect.
“Over the last 20 to 30 years, there has been a move to court a certain type of voter where our traditional voters, who were a big coalition of people, started to think ‘Labour doesn’t represent me anymore’. I think that was a mistake.
“Of course you have to get support across the social spectrum and I think we can do that because I did 63 meetings during the referendum. Consistently through that, the theme of social justice was raised, whether that was in working class communities or by middle class people.
“There is a broad spectrum of society that is really concerned about the inequality in our society. That’s the coalition that we have to convince that Labour is the solution to these problems.”
To be part of the solution, he believes, Labour must place “an attack on health and wealth inequality” at the heart of its policy programme and political narrative.
“That’s the biggest challenge that we face across society and none more so than this great city where we see people living a few miles apart and there’s 20 years of difference in their life expectancy. It’s to our collective shame that we’ve allowed that to continue in Scotland. I see it in my own community, I see it in the street where I live.”
He adds: “That’s what people in Scotland were raising as a major concern during the referendum, whether they voted Yes or No.”
That means both challenging the SNP’s claim to be a left-wing party but also avoiding the trap of organising Labour’s strategy and policies around opposition to the Nationalists.
He scoffs at the idea that Nicola Sturgeon’s party is left-of-centre, arguing: “It’s nonsense. You only have to look at the SNP’s policy programme. It’s not a social democratic programme. It does no redistribution of money from the rich to the poor. Things like the council tax freeze punish the poorest people. People with the biggest houses gain most and the services for the poorest are cut most. That’s not a progressive policy.
“They have slashed college places, denying working class young people opportunities. They want to devolve corporation tax but they don’t want to devolve it to increase the revenue. They want it to cut the taxes for the biggest companies. These are not the actions of a progressive government.
“However, for all that, we cannot judge ourselves by what the SNP do. We have to have a proud, clear Labour programme about what we stand for and be very clear in putting across those messages to the electorate about poverty, health inequality, housing, and the social care crisis in the NHS.
“We should stand or fall by our policies, not simply look to the opposition and say they’re doing that so we have to do this.”
What Labour must do, Findlay reckons, is improve its policy and its politics, by offering a bold vision and bringing into the party people who can engage with ordinary voters, the people Labour has lost in the past few years. As leader, he would set about shaking up the party’s organisation and policy formation to make Scottish Labour a winning party once again.
He’s confident that these changes could even secure victory as early as the 2015 general election and the 2016 Scottish Parliament poll.
He insists: “Of course we can win. We have to do that by doing four things. We have to have the strategy and we have lacked a clear strategy in recent years. We have to have policy because you can have the best PR machine possible but if you don’t have anything to tell people then it’s useless.
“We need a communications plan that ensures that those policies resonate and get through via social media, on the doorstep, and in our literature that we put out. And finally we need the right team in place. We need to have the top people, the best people that we can recruit.
“People will join a political party when they’re excited about the policy programme. You join because it’s the politics that attracts you, not the fact that we have a glossy image or media campaign. We have to reflect the society that’s out there. I want more bricklayers in parliament and representing us on councils.
“I want more nurses, more people who work in Tesco, people who are involved in all sorts of employment because that’s much richer than if we have a particular type of person who goes from school to university to being an adviser to a politician to becoming a politician.
“That’s not me being critical of people who have done that. Because many of them who are friends of mine who have gone through that route are fantastic at their job. But it does not give us the richness that we need to represent Labour in parliament and I want to look very seriously at that.”
Key to that is to end the false dichotomy between Labour’s “core vote” — which is very core indeed these days — and what we are now obliged to term “aspirational voters” (read: people who live in Newton Mearns).
Findlay maintains: “I find it frustrating that people would suggest that working class people have no aspiration. It is nonsense. The people who I’ve grown up with who are my best friends and will always be my best friends have huge aspirations for themselves and the families. It is the system that has held many of them back.
“I don’t see there being a difference between the aspirations of working class people and middle class people. We share aspirations for a better tomorrow and Labour has to reflect that.”
Findlay has ideas, something Scottish Labour has been lacking of late, and the personality to take them to an electorate grown tired of this ever-vacillating political quantity, this vacuum of vision and ambition, this managerial party that can’t manage anything.
His unique selling point — a phrase so hideous you can imagine Peter Mandelson saying it with a smile — is authenticity. There is no artifice with Findlay and he would present real difficulties to an SNP eager to paint Scottish Labour as a party of neoliberal sellouts, Westminster-lite.
I can think of no Labour politician more capable of challenging the SNP to a fight on left-wing territory and showing up the Nationalists as just another centrist, vote-buying party, no different from New Labour or the Tories or Lib Dems. If Jim Murphy is the candidate who would give the SNP the most PR headaches, Findlay is the man to get under the Nationalists’ skin on policy.
How his socialist impulses and agenda will sit with more moderate Labour voters remains to be seen. Team Murphy will be hoping that party members, including those who might agree with much of what Findlay espouses, will fear he is too radical and that his election would represent a leftwards lurch too far for moderate voters. There is some credence to this: Elections in this country are still won and lost in the centre ground.
But Findlay’s candidacy is undoubtedly the most powerful, coherent, and ambitious leadership bid the Labour left has mounted in a long time. It deserves to be taken seriously because it is a serious proposition. Findlay’s ideas, his determination, and his ordinary-bloke credentials make him a formidable figure in Scottish Labour politics. Whatever the outcome of the leadership vote, and whatever the right of his party might want, Findlay is certain to play a central role in any revival of Scottish Labour.