Mhairi Black is a nightmare to interview.
We’re walking along the Paisley side street where her campaign hub is based on Friday afternoon.
It’s an unusually warm and inviting day so how better to get a flavour of the electors’ attitude towards the SNP candidate for Paisley and Renfrewshire South than by hitting the streets for a walk-‘n’-talk.
“You’re 20. You haven’t finished university yet. What are you doing standing for Parl-”
“Good luck,” says a thirty-something woman, squeezing Black’s arm eagerly.
A second woman comes over. Where is the campaign HQ? She wants to volunteer.
I try again. “Have you always been SNP or did you used to-”
Now we’re stopped by two student-looking types who, if their hair is anything to go by, listen to too much Oasis.
“I used to be SSP then I heard you giving a speech,” declares Noel. “Now I’m SNP.” Liam nods vigorously in agreement.
Another woman accosts Black to ask for a selfie. Next they’ll be asking for her autograph, I mutter to myself, with reporterly cynicism.
We press ahead and I persevere: “This is some reaction you’re getting. Is it like this every-”
“Mhairi,” a voice booms from a shop doorway. We turn to find a man thrusting his Saltire-cased iPhone at the candidate and, no doubt just to spite me, requesting that she sign it.
As she does so, bemused but enthusiastic, I step back to get a proper look. This isn’t a budding politician. It’s a star in the making.
It’s not about being Scottish
Away from her admirers, I ask what inspired her to become a Nationalist. Immediately, it’s clear that she’s uneasy with the word.
She explains: “It’s problematic because it depends what people think ‘nationalist’ means. If it means civic nationalism, then aye, why not. But there’s a danger that people start to think it’s all about just being Scottish, whereas the SNP is not about being Scottish. If you’re in Scotland and you want to see a better society, we’re for you.”
This non-nationalist approach no doubt reflects her background in a rock solid Labour family, who have since turned one by one to the SNP. She cites the writings of Keir Hardie and Tony Benn as intellectual influences, as well as the speeches of Dennis Skinner. But the party they championed now leaves her melancholy.
“I feel really sad when I look at Labour,” she tells me. “I look at this party that used to be filled with absolute giants; now we’ve got Ed Miliband and Ed Balls. And I think, What happened? What happened to you?”
Her affection for the old, Clause Four Labour Party seems sincere, if somewhat romantic:
“Labour got to the position they’re in because they were the party that stood up for ordinary folk. Yes, they went to the Palace of Westminster, the corridors of power, where there was a lot of elitism and folk with money but they were the party of ordinary folk.
“Labour can’t say that anymore. They’ve abandoned all their principles. They’ve bent to the will of the south-east of England and the more Conservative vote just in order to get power. People are starting to recognise that Labour are more interested in power than they are in principle.
“I think people are reacting to that by coming to the SNP. They’re seeing the qualities that Labour once had in the SNP. We’re pursuing policies that we believe in and it’s about making policy that protects people and has people’s interests at the heart of it.”
Power and influence
But the pivotal politician in her journey was the one probably responsible for converting more Labour voters to the Scottish national movement than anyone until Alex Salmond in his second tenure as SNP leader.
“The biggest influence on me was Margo MacDonald,” she recalls. “I thought she was just magic. Her honesty, ingenuity, and intellect — and the imagination that came from her was fantastic.”
And if she’s not a Nationalist, what is she?
She says: “I believe in ordinary folk having power and influence over their lives. I think ordinary people should be coming together and working harder to get society better and I think society should be fairer. Everybody should play their part.”
That belief in empowerment and social solidarity shouldn’t be surprising since Black was born and bred in Paisley, a once thriving market town that, in common with much of this part of the world, has never really found its feet since the body blow of deindustrialisation.
The social and economic challenges of the constituency weigh on her mind.
As she puts it: “In some ways I think this area is quite representative of Scotland. What’s happened is there has been a fall in confidence of people. I remember the town centre when I was wee and we would go along and do our shopping and it would always be buzzing.
“It’s genuinely really sad when I walk through the town centre now and see so many shops and pubs that have closed. That’s not right and they’ve closed due to lack of funding. And there are real problems, for instance drug abuse is a real issue.
“And it all stems from policies from a Westminster government. It really does. It’s not playing the blaming game of pointing the finger. It’s blaming the culprits.”
This answer is the only one from Black that fails to impress me. It’s a workmanlike response that would be passable coming from any SNP candidate. She, however, is not just any SNP candidate and should she make it to Parliament she will have to mature her analysis beyond “it’s all Westminster’s fault”.
As a woman of the Left, she might also be surprised to learn that Paisley isn’t all that representative of Scotland and certainly not of the rural SNP strongholds or the leafy suburbs where the party’s 2011 majority was built. A party that prizes the nation over class will always struggle to realise its radical potential.
Discovering the art of campaigning
In any other election, Black would be a paper candidate. On the ballot just so the SNP could say they had a candidate standing. Paisley and Renfrewshire South and its predecessor seats have been represented by a Labour MP almost without interruption since 1945. In 1976, the sitting MP John Robertson left Labour to found the Scottish Labour Party along with Jim Sillars and Alex Neil.
The SLP was committed to Home Rule for Scotland and advocated holding firm to socialist economic policies but it failed to attract voters away from Labour and was disbanded in 1981. Sillars and Neil decided the next logical move was to join the SNP, making their own journey decades before Mhairi Black made hers.
The incumbent Douglas Alexander has represented the constituency since 1997 and in 2010 took almost 60% of the vote. A Cabinet secretary under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, including a stint at the Scotland Office, he now serves as Labour’s shadow foreign secretary. Alexander is respected as a political strategist and well-regarded in foreign policy circles. He is also Labour’s UK election coordinator.
If a 20-year-old politics student beats him in two weeks’ time, it will be an electoral reversal comparable to Michael Portillo’s memorable 1997 defeat.
But that’s never going to happen… is it?
In the latest Lord Ashcroft poll, Black is 11 points ahead of Alexander. If she secures this level of support on May 7, it will represent a swing of 26.5% to the SNP.
Black has only met Alexander once, during the independence referendum when she approached him at a Better Together stall and asked him to explain his case for the Union. She came away “uninspired” and lamented that, “for a guy at the top of his game”, there was “no imagination”.
Her only other exposure to her rival is his appearances on BBC One’s Question Time, where she feels he “doesn’t come across as somebody who genuinely appreciates the hardship that so many people are going through due to policies of his governments and that his party is hoping to implement”.
She continues: “It’s almost like he’s part of an establishment now. He’s disconnected. In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve seen Douglas Alexander more in the last two months than I have in the last ten years. I find it quite strange that it’s only when a poll comes out that shows he might be at risk of losing his seat that he seems to have discovered the art of campaigning.”
Her campaign HQ is a converted flat above a shop front just off Paisley town centre. The complex of rooms whirs with activity as a seemingly endless battalion of activists fold letters, stuff envelopes, and discuss canvass returns. I wait while the candidate finishes off another interview. She’s talking to CNN. Nobody seems fazed by this; the focus is stiletto-sharp on The Mission.
I want to get a sense of how her message — and personality — is going down on the doorstep, so we grab a bundle of leaflets and an address list and head off to talk to voters.
We are driven round the constituency by Mary, a brigadier general in the Mhairi Army. Every campaign needs a Mary, the unflappable fixer who keeps everyone in line and their spirits up after tiring hours of door-knocking. She apologises endlessly for her car’s repeated stalling. They may be the only bumps Black experiences on the road to Westminster.
We meet up with a crew of hi-vis jacketed activists to canvass a residential scheme. It’s mid-afternoon, a notoriously arid time to go round the doors. The best time slot is always in the evening, once the nation’s dinner plates have been cleared out of the way and the kids are scribbling away at their homework upstairs. Of course, you run the risk that you interrupt Coronation Street and send disgruntled soap fans into the arms of the opposition.
The first resident to answer the door says that she made up her mind how to vote after watching the debates.
“And would you mind me asking which party?” the candidate ventures with hope.
Once we’re away from the door, Black notes sardonically that every other time a journalist has shadowed her, the first voter has always been SNP. Maybe I’m bad luck.
On the doorstep
A few doors later, I get a glimpse of Black’s gift of the gab.
A 40ish woman who voted Yes in September says she still can’t decide how to vote. She didn’t turn out in 2010 because she “didn’t agree with any of them” and she seems mightily sceptical of all politicians.
Black begins: “This general election is different from all others. It’s always been ‘Scotland votes Labour’ but for the first time there is a party where, if we have a strong enough group, we can put pressure on whoever’s in government to make sure we get all the things we were promised in the referendum.”
The voter’s expression has softened.
She continues: “It seems that no matter whether it’s Labour governments or Conservative governments, nothing changes. I know Labour are out using all this rhetoric about social justice but they’ve signed up to the same cuts that the Tories have — £30bn worth. That’s where it is so important for folk like yourself to say, ‘This time, we are doing something different. We deserve better’.”
Now she’s nodding along to the impromptu speech. “You’re right. We do.”
The wrap: “If we can get that strong group, hopefully we can start delivering policies that change people’s lives rather than damage them. But the only way we can do it is with people like you.”
The householder is now considering voting SNP, takes a leaflet, and thanks Black for visiting her.
From undecided to a strong maybe in one minute and 49 seconds.
The history of the SNP is a timeline of pioneering women. Winnie Ewing, Hamilton, 1967. Margo MacDonald, Govan, 1973. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland, 2014.
If the polls are right – and, let’s face it, they can’t all be wrong – to that roll call of achievement we will soon be able to add: Mhairi Black, Paisley, 2015.
Winnie, dubbed “Madame Ecosse”, and Margo, the “blonde bombshell”, stole the spotlight in by-elections that fixed the media’s attention for their hints at growing Scottish discontent with Labour.
Black arrives on the scene under very different circumstances, one of 59 Nationalist candidates riding a wave of hostility towards Scottish Labour and the Westminster system. Nonetheless, she is in that great tradition of bolshy SNP women who refuse to sit down, shut up, and vote Labour. There is a distinct lack of cereal-eating to Mhairi Black.
The Glasgow University student was active in the Yes campaign during the referendum but her name became known to most voters when the Daily Record picked up on comments she made about Labour councillors and Celtic fans. The former, she told the raw and angry post-referendum “Hope over Fear” rally, she wanted to “put the nut” on and the latter she“f— hate[s]”, she told Twitter.
I was at the Hope over Fear shiva and I remember rolling my eyes at Black’s desire to go head to head with Labour politicians. When the Record wrote about the comments a few months later, I had some sympathy with the Labour spokesperson who told the paper: “The SNP should think seriously about whether this is the kind of person they really want representing them.”
But while we justly resist intolerant and abusive language, particularly as our debate shifts from left versus right to competing national identities, we should bear in mind that knockabout rhetoric has always been part of British politics.
It was Labour legend Nye Bevan, remember, who execrated the Tories as “lower than vermin” for “condemn[ing] millions of first-class people to semi-starvation”. As Labour politicians are slowly beginning to realise, many Nationalists now consider them lower than Tories for condemning Scotland to the political starvation of the Union.
Nor is Black alone in letting rhetoric get the better of her judgment. When Celtic held Inter Milan to a 3-3 draw in the Europa League in February, one Labour blogger tweeted in an apparent reference to Black: “Imagine how miserable the wee Nazi candidate in Paisley must be about tonight’s Celtic performance.”
For good or for ill, this is where Scotland’s politics stands in 2015.
If she is sent to Westminster by the people of Paisley and Renfrewshire South, what does she hope to achieve there?
“I want to see a decline in poverty. I want to see a rising in standards and quality of life in this place. We’ve got some pockets of Renfrewshire that have one in three kids living in poverty. We’ve got one in five people living in poverty. We’ve got so many people using food banks.”
At this point, her voice takes on a real anger and every one of her words comes out in bold, underlined: “People being reliant on the charity of others to eat. That’s Victorian. That’s something we’d read about in Dickens. And yet here we are in 2015, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and we’ve got people who can’t eat. People in work who can’t eat.”
So her “minimum” goal is to be able to look back in five years and say the constituency is better than she found it.
Her answers to my questions are at times compellingly involved and at others refreshingly blunt.
Does she support full fiscal autonomy? “Completely.”
Will she vote to give herself a pay rise as an MP? “No.”
What was she planning to do for a living before this opportunity came up? “I hadn’t actually decided yet.”
And she’s an open, unapologetic politics geek.
Does she have any time to herself nowadays? “If it’s a choice between possibly changing people’s lives and watching Britain’s Got Talent, I know which one I’d pick.”
That answer isn’t delivered po-faced but with a heartfelt earnestness that is somewhat endearing. Part of me worries she’ll get swallowed up at Westminster but another part thinks Westminster has no idea what’s about to hit it.
It’s about the arguments
Electoral landslides are indiscriminate beasts, sweeping in the dross with the diamonds. We saw this in 1983, 1997, and in Scotland in 2011. Black may be rough around the edges, a yet-to-be-formed politician, but she has It — that ineffable quality that distinguishes an MP from a candidate who happens to win an election.
In her case, “It” is a blend of righteous passion, dreamy (perhaps quixotic) idealism, unfiltered candour, and a down-to-earth personality that is without affectation. She’s realand for an electorate jaundiced by remote politicians, interchangeable manifestos, and expenses scandals, that must come as an intoxicating tonic.
It’s difficult not to get caught up in it. It’s effortless on her part; she doesn’t realise what a talent she is. There is the Mhairi Black of the headlines (and more than a modicum of class snobbery) and there is the Mhairi Black you meet in person. Don’t cling to the former or you’ll never be able to see the latter.
The polls predict a yellow tsunami on May 7 and, if the responses she gets on the streets and the doorsteps are anything to go by, Black is set to be washed in on that tide. Some of that will be a personal vote but much of it will be because she has “SNP” next to her name.
Which might be why she doesn’t let the public’s response go to her head.
“It’s magic,” she declares, again deploying that most Paisley of expressions. “But they’re not doing it for me. They’re doing it for what I’m arguing. This isn’t about me, it’s about the arguments. People are finally getting a party that is trying to put people at the heart of what it’s doing. That’s what been missing for the last five years, never mind the last 20 years.”
Douglas Alexander has a fight on his hands and, whichever way the ballots fall, the SNP has a new face for a new generation.