If Jim Murphy fails it will be because Labour is beyond saving

Jim Murphy couldn’t win his joust with Bernard Ponsonby on Wednesday night, whatever winning means in a Scotland unmoored from so many political certainties.

If he had tried, he would have risked looking desperate. Pathetically straining for a game-changer in the dying days of the election campaign.

No, the only thing for it was to push through, run down the clock, and get to the end of the 30-minute interrogation. In politics, the less you want to say, the more you should talk.

Ponsonby pressed the Scottish Labour leader on his flip-flopping on tuition fees and Labour’s plans for further cuts to public expenditure. Why wouldn’t he make progressive common cause with the SNP? Why the obsession with full fiscal autonomy, a policy that is coming to a Scottish Parliament near you no time soon?

Answers such as came were lost amid the maelstrom of crosstalk and clock-running. It seems like everything in Scottish politics is caught up in a violent eddy of history-making right now.

Did we learn anything from the half-hour exchange? Unless you count Murphy’s “outing” of Bernard Ponsonby’s football allegiances – was Bernard ever in as a Celtic fan? – then the answer is No.

But the programme underscored something important about Jim Murphy: his seemingly limitless perseverance. He reads the same polls as the rest of us. He knocks on doors and talks to people. He knows what’s coming. He gets that it’s going to be a bloodbath.

And yet he presses on because what else is there to do. So he gets up on his Irn-Bru crate and tries to croak out the most radical platform the Labour Party has advanced in a generation above screeches of “traitor” and “Red Tories”. He tours the TV studios and submits to an almost hourly doing from one broadcaster or another. He bests Nicola Sturgeon in a string of debates and watches glumly as the polls swing further to, not against, her.

His determination deserves something. It deserves a good measure more loyalty than the poltroonish imputations of two of his comrades, who have anonymously briefed the Daily Telegraph that he is responsible for Scottish Labour’s impending rout and should go after May 7. It is safe to assume neither of these kvetchers could be counted amongst the leading lights of Labour politics. Their facility for self-criticism is certainly lacking if they believe Murphy, barely six months in the job, is to blame for a catastrophe more than a decade in the making. He merits a share of responsibility along with the rest of the Labour ranks but no more than others and in some cases considerably less.

The ritual humiliation to which he subjects himself every day at the hands of triumphalist Nationalists and a contemptuous media warrants something else. It has earned him the right to take a run at 2016. The fact that he may not be an MP in the next Parliament is an important detail but a detail nonetheless. There aren’t going to be very many Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster for the next five years. Constitutional niceties are for parties that don’t have their very survival at stake.

Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack showed themselves to be capable and thoughtful figures during the party’s leadership race and deputy leader Kezia Dugdale has been something of a revelation in her confident, sometimes fierce performances at First Minister’s Questions. But there is only one leader capable of making a decent fist of the Holyrood elections and to turf him out after half a year would be to hang a “do not resuscitate” sign on Labour’s life-support machine.

This is not mere sentiment. In fact, it is the most hard-headed calculation that can be made. If Labour can be saved in the short term, he is the man to do it. If he fails, it will be because Labour is beyond saving in the short term. Then it will be for Dugdale or someone from her generation to rebuild the party as a progressive force in Scottish politics.

But before Murphy can be written off, he must be given the chance to make his case.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Kurt Bauschardt by Creative Commons 2.0.

Could SNP’s best poll also be its worst? (Hint: Probably not)

I for one welcome our new Nationalist overlords.

The final STV poll of the general election campaign puts the SNP on 54% to Scottish Labour’s 20%.

According to one projection, these results, should they play out on May 7, would see the Nationalists win every Scottish seat.

Every last one. 59-0.

No single party has taken all of Scotland’s constituencies in an election since the Great Reform Act of 1832. I doubt it happened before then either.

On its face, the Ipsos MORI research is good news for Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP, and the gulag-construction industry.

Sturgeon was already bound for the history books for becoming Scotland’s first female First Minister. Now, she is set to be the woman who ends the half-century Scottish Labour hegemony and ushers in Nationalist Scotland. The leader who achieved what MacEwen, McIntyre, and Halliday could only dream of; who succeeded where Donaldson, Wolfe, and Wilson failed. Alex Salmond, hitherto the most consequential figure in the Scottish national movement, would be swiftly deposed.

All hail Queen Nicola the Conqueror.

But is there potential for a backlash amongst undecided voters and soft Labour switchers uneasy about Scotland joining the ranks of North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba as a one-party state? (Yes, I know we wouldn’t actually be a single-party regime, de jure or de facto, for all the reasons you’re shouting at your computer screen right now. Please assume I am aware of this newfangled literary device called “hyperbole” and am consciously employing it.)

Some voters might recoil from the idea of the SNP controlling a majority Scottish Government, a plurality of local government seats, and all of Scotland’s seats in the House of Commons. They might deem it unseemly to have one party dominate a country so comprehensively, more comprehensively even than Labour at its zenith.

And they would be right. Democracy is about more than the brute force of numbers; it requires pluralism, balance, and dissenting voices. A country that votes itself out of the multi-party model and opts for the rule of a single party is technically democratic, but substantively something less.

“Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority,” Mark Twain cautioned, “it is time to pause and reflect.”

Before the Nationalists pause to reflect, the voters might do a bit of that themselves. In Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters might throw their weight behind David Mundell, an impeccably liberal Tory. In East Renfrewshire, Tories might come to the conclusion that Jim Murphy is the lesser of two evils after all. In nearby East Dunbartonshire, Labour and Conservative supporters could stop and look again at Jo Swinson. Would they rather have a Nationalist representing them than the young, whip-smart equalities minister?

Tactical voting cannot turn the tide in this election but it could prevent the wholesale wipeout of non-Nationalist parties.

Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. It is unlikely the SNP will claim every seat in the land. Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael’s Orkney and Shetland constituency, for instance, has voted Liberal or Liberal Democrat in every election since 1950. Are the people of Ross, Skye and Lochaber really going to toss out Charles Kennedy, one of the most liked and respected politicians in the UK?

Tactical voting will fail to stem the yellow tide for the same reason that this poll will send some but not legions of cautious centre-ground voters flocking back into the arms of Labour or the Lib Dems. The Rubicon has been crossed and there is no going back. Scotland has already marked the cross on its ballot.

The SNP’s all-but-certain victory on May 7 is much-deserved, in political terms at least. The party has assembled a coalition of rich and poor, young and old, urban and rural, Yes and No. Fault its economic prospectus all you want but it has found a voice with which to speak to and for people across the country. No other party can compete and no other leader is a match for Nicola Sturgeon. If defeat is Scottish Labour’s just deserts, the SNP has this victory coming.

But the party’s seemingly unassailable position of strength makes a light touch all the more important. The wages of hubris is political death and years of unmeetable expectations unmet will make that demise painful. It would be bitterly ironic for the Nationalists to replace Labour only to repeat its mistakes.

And what of Scottish Labour, that rough beast that slouches towards Golgotha? It stands on 20% in our poll, which would represent the party’s worst result in a general election since December 1910. Led by Jim Murphy, the party’s most talented leader of the devolution era, Labour is within the margin of error of being tied with the Scottish Conservatives.

Dungeons don’t come darker or gallows grimmer than this, at least not in democratic politics. Welcome to the last seven days of Labour Scotland.

Originally published on STV News.

Rejecting Labour is spurning an inheritance from our grandfathers

We all have an inheritance from our grandfathers.

Some are tangible – a watch, a book, a rosary – while others are more ephemeral, like lessons learned, wisdom gifted, or fond recollections of family holidays. The stirring scent of aftershave or pipe tobacco, the taste of an old recipe, or the sound of a rust-bucket car sputtering to ignition, horse-racing on television, or prayers at the dinner table.

I have inherited some of these things from my grandfather but above all he bequeathed me a sense of right and wrong, an impulse towards justice, and an intriguing, inchoate attachment to Labour, an emotional connection if not a political one.

Grandfathers are central to politics in the west of Scotland. Until recently, the most common response to a declaration of support for any party other than Labour was an incredulous, “Your grandfather would be turning in his grave if he could hear you now”. Voting Labour wasn’t a political decision but a family custom, like Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve or stuffy car journeys once a month to visit an elderly aunt that no one particularly liked. It wasn’t something you did, it was the done thing.

I keep having the same conversation with friends from backgrounds similar to mine. You’re probably familiar with the syntax: A defiant confession of support for the SNP, followed by a caustic prosecution of Labour’s assorted betrayals, and then the trump card: “My grandfather would agree with me if he was still around”. The most recent of these discussions reminded me of a much older conversation.

Granddad was Labour

“When will you die, Granddad?” I asked one summer’s afternoon during one of our walks with his German Shepherd, Smokey, in a nearby wood which I called “The Jungle” on the basis that it was bigger than a few square feet and I had recently discovered Kipling. I was six and like all children secretly obsessed by death.

My grandfather was my best friend; “Batman” and “Robin” we called each other, he having admirably absorbed the pop cultural signposts that charted my childhood. I never imagined him as old but I had recently learned that he was born in nineteen-canteen (for years to come I assumed this Glaswegian slang was a synonym for 1919) and I knew that people got old and died.

“Not for a long time, son,” he reassured me.

“But what age will I be?” I persevered.

“You’ll be a teenager; fourteen or so.”

He died a year later.

Granddad was Labour. I doubt he was ever a member, except perhaps in early life, but he was Labour. His socialism was material, not materialist, forged in the soul-crushing poverty and indolence of the Great Depression. He never read Marx or Engels to my knowledge but as a schoolboy he witnessed truncheon-happy police subduing a wildcat march for jobs and food and there and then he knew which side he was on. (“What socialist worthy of the name,” wrote James Maxton, “does not feel in his heart a tremendous pity, a tremendous desire to relieve immediately the sufferings of the victim?”)

Religion of priorities

After he was demobbed from the Army – he fought at Dunkirk but seldom spoke about it – he and a friend went to a public meeting to hear Aneurin Bevan speak. That the visceral miner-turned-MP enchanted Granddad is hardly surprising; Bevan’s blunt credo, “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”, summed up his own attitude to politics. For Granddad, ‘socialism’ was just a ten-bob word for common decency.

We were a political family then. Not professionally or intellectually but politics was a regular topic of impassioned conversation in the living room. The names Scargill, Benn, and That Woman weaved amid the electric blue fug of convivial Sunday evenings. Such ideological differences as existed were intra-Left disputes over tactics and strategy. Of course Militant were good socialists but hadn’t their behaviour been less than comradely? Kinnock was undoubtedly a compromiser but he was also the man to finally beat the Tories, wasn’t he? The miners, now several years on from their defeat, were beyond reproach.

I imagine conversations like these look place in working-class households up and down the country, as well-meaning people convinced themselves that collective struggle and municipal socialism were one election away from revival. They never were and when Labour changed with a changing world it was inevitable that people would be left behind. Until a few years ago, they had a few choices: Hold their nose and vote Labour, waste their vote on a fringe Left party, or stop voting altogether.

Robbing the dead

The referendum up-ended this. The Nationalists had already begun to displace Labour with an appealing melange of leftish rhetoric, populist poses, and competent governance. The old Labour Party was reborn in the SNP, so the mythos went, a party unburdened by Blairite modernisation on economic and social policy and unhaunted by the spectre of Iraq. Now Labour was sharing a stage with the wicked Tories to defend the iniquitous Westminster system. The staunchest bulwark against nationalism could finally be swept aside and the SNP could claim the mantle of Scottish social democracy.

I miss Granddad. During the referendum, I kept wondering what he would make of it all. Then I heard his voice in Archie Macpherson, the veteran sports broadcaster having delivered a heartfelt speech against independence in the final weeks of the campaign. Trumpeting the solidarity that created the welfare state and built the NHS, Archie conceded the flaws of the United Kingdom, but insisted: “I intend to stick on that particular road, difficult though it may be.”

This was Granddad speaking, I convinced myself (aided by a moderate physical resemblance). His statement of principle — “I am as concerned about food banks in Liverpool as I am in Glasgow or Dundee” — just sounded like him.

But it wasn’t him. I have no idea how he would have felt about independence. His politics were his own, shaped by time and place and personal experience. I cannot impose by guess what I do not know. I have no right to rob the dead.

We dream different dreams

This is why I’m uneasy when friends bring up their grandfathers in explaining their own conversion to the SNP. Papa wouldn’t recognise today’s Labour Party, I’m told. If he was here today, he would be voting SNP too. It’s the real socialist party now.

Labour has abandoned socialism — or at least the brand of socialism our grandfathers would have recognised — but its custodians are not to be found amongst the Scottish electorate who have flocked to the SNP, not now or ever a socialist party.

Our grandfathers joined the Labour cause with enthusiasm and their grandchildren are no less impassioned about the movement to which they have signed up. But we are not remaking the society our grandfathers created. We dream different dreams and hew to our own ideals.

These men of steel and coal and wrought iron built a society on industrial and social solidarity in the shadow of Britain’s finest moment, our impossible triumph over the Nazi war machine. Few of them harboured illusions about the imperial past but nor were they enervated by the fashionable self-hatred that grips the modern Left. They believed in right and wrong and weren’t ashamed of it. Nationalism meant something very different to them than it does to us now.

Their world belongs to them. We have no right to rob the dead.

Vengeful mood

On the eve of General Election 2015, that world is set to be turned upside down as Scotland prepares to break with half a century of political history and turf out its Labour MPs in favour of a clanjamphry of Nationalists. For those who left Labour long ago — because Labour long ago left them, they would say — all sentiment is gone or such as remains has been dulled by time and anger.

Now there is hatred, sincere, white-hot hatred. The public is in vengeful mood; it doesn’t care about stopping the Big Bad Tories. The class enemy is no match for the national enemy. At least the Tories have always been upfront bastards; Labour sold us out to keep their jobs and expenses.

The Nationalists have dislodged Labour in the Scottish Parliament and are now almost certain to do the same at Westminster. And maybe they deserve to. They’ve been smart, lean, and hard-working. They’ve earned a reputation for competence in government. They’ve secured the support of much of the Scottish Left without once venturing beyond the low-tax, pro-business, neoliberal centre ground. Fifty years of voting Labour and that party seems at a loss to articulate the hopes and aspirations of huge swathes of Scotland. ‘Give the other lot a go’ has powerful appeal.

Everything I write about Scottish Labour now feels like an elegy. Not simply for a political party but for a time and place and people no longer here. Rejecting Labour is spurning an inheritance from our grandfathers but some inheritances ought to be spurned. It is for us to decide if this is one of them. Burke’s contract between the living, the dead, and the yet to be born is a relationship, not a straitjacket.

But if we are to break our ties to Labour, let’s be sensible about the party we’re leaving behind. It is not the monstrous regiments of neocons portrayed by the SNP but in fact the most successful, transformative left-of-centre political force in these islands and perhaps across Europe.

Moral crusade

Harold Wilson said the Labour Party was a moral crusade or it was nothing. It is also an instrument for change and that is how our grandfathers used it. They are due a debt of gratitude for what they bequeathed us: A free and democratic country, a welfare state, and universal healthcare. Resistance to Nazism and Communism, security through Nato, and the great loosening up that saw Britain soften its attitudes on race, sex, and criminal justice and relinquish its grip around the world.

In the Attlee years, young men returned from battle abroad declared war on giant evils at home. Later, middle-aged men raising families in this reborn country looked to the white heat of technology to send their children to university rather than down a pit.

Some who lived to see the coming of Blair rankled at the silencing of the old songs but New Labour, in the early days and in its own way, continued the progressive legacy, with the minimum wage, parental leave, LGBT equality, and coming to the aid of the poor and oppressed the world over.

For some, this is all outweighed by Iraq, pandering on immigration and welfare, and an ill-judged referendum alliance with the Tories. For others whose party was conspicuous by its absence on many of these achievements, the scales have always been tipped against a party that fashioned the very modern, optimistic Britishness that set back their own national enterprise. Others still may note these accomplishments and shrug, What have you done for me lately?

“There’s no crime so mean as ingratitude in politics,” the Tammany Hall fixer George W. Plunkitt once bitterly observed.

Our inheritance

I have no idea how I’m going to vote on May 7. I suspect I won’t make up my mind until the final days. Heart and head will compete as in every election but this time history is calling too. How many more times can we be let down? If Labour is the answer, why is its standing in England so low that we in Scotland are obliged to carry it over the line? But can we trust the SNP, whose record on progressive politics is iffy to say the least? Do we really want to be the generation that casts off social democracy in favour of nationalism?

If we stick with Labour, and that now looks all but impossible, it needs to get its act together and put forward a hopeful yet practical vision for Scotland within the UK in the coming decades. If we choose to end the Labour era, we will break with the political traditions of our grandfathers. Some will turn in their graves while others will cheer us on.

But even if we turn away from their politics, we should not give up on their values. If Nationalists we must be, let our nationalism be civic and progressive, free from superiority complexes and prating victimhood. Is nationalism possible without parochialism? I don’t know but we ought to try. If not, and if we must care more about poverty in Hamilton than in Hackney, then count me out.

We will be grandfathers and grandmothers one day and decades later, when we are gone, our grandchildren will struggle with our legacy. They may spurn it and cringe that we could ever be so short-sighted, reactionary, or foolish. But let them cringe at our choice of party or policy, not the values that underpin them. Those values of fairness, compassion, and solidarity are the most precious inheritance from our grandfathers and we have a duty to pass them on.

Originally published on STV News

On quislings, ‘non-Scots’ and Scottish nationalism

As campaign strategies go, it’s certainly a novel one.

In Edinburgh South, which voted No in September’s referendum by 65% to 35%, SNP candidate Neil Hay has hit trouble.

Under a pseudonymous account, “Paco McSheepie”, which he ran in 2012, he tweeted the term “quisling” with reference to unionists and lamented that “umpteen poor souls in the elderly bracket can vote but barely know their own name”.

No doubt these bon mots will go some way to winning sceptical voters round in the next referendum. “Vote for us, you doddery old traitors” has a certain ring to it.

Hay has apologised for his remarks, telling the Edinburgh Evening News: “The words in these old tweets were poorly chosen, and I apologise for any offence caused. They are not in keeping with the way I would express myself now. To make it clear that I and the way I express myself have moved on – I hope and believe for the better – I deleted this Twitter account, and only use my own campaign account.”

His sympathisers point out that Hay merely posted a headline and link from a nationalist satirical site, BBC Scotlandshire. That is true but no fair reading of the article could conclude that what is being ironised is the traitor-baiting tendency within Scottish nationalism. It’s the “quislings” being scorned, not their accusers.

Scottish Labour seized on his remarks, demanding that Nicola Sturgeon sack him as a candidate. Sturgeon has refused and warned Labour that people in glass Tweetdecks shouldn’t throw hashtags, an eminently fair point given that party’s tolerance of its member Ian Smart, a one-man case for Godwin’s Law to have a three-strikes rule.

Smart has called Mhairi Black, a talented young SNP candidate, a “wee Nazi” and claimed Alex Salmond would be “crying into his soup” at the sight of “two black English lassies cheered all the way round Hampden” during the Commonwealth Games. “Better 100 years of the Tories,” he ventured in a tweet from 2013, “than the turn on the Poles and the P***s that would follow independence failing to deliver.”

Scottish Labour has to decide if it wants to be associated with verbal sewage like this.

But, unlike Hay, Smart is not standing as a candidate for Parliament and that is a meaningful difference. The online abuse angle is important but there is a larger consideration. Serving as a Member of Parliament requires a certain temperament and comportment. Not all politicians live up to this but it is the standard to which all should aspire. Fundamental to that is the principle that an MP represents all of his constituents, not just the ones who voted for him. If this is how Hay views Scots who opposed independence, how will he deal as an MP with those who backed another candidate?

We hear a lot about cybernats and it is true that some independence enthusiasts post outrageous comments online. But some of the most thought-provoking and stimulating conversations I’ve had on Twitter have been with people with 15 Yes badges in their profile. They did not have to resort to debasing their opponents; they had arguments. I also know plenty of SNP activists. None of them spent the referendum running fake Twitter accounts. They were too busy leafleting tower blocks, registering voters, and phone-banking undecideds.

“Celtic jerseys are not for second best,” Jock Stein aphorised. “They don’t shrink to fit inferior players.” The same is true of party rosettes. That yellow flourish and crossed black ribbon mean something. They represent a proud political party underpinned by deeply-held values and committed to the betterment of Scotland and her people. When your name appears on a ballot paper alongside that party, you have a responsibility to the leader, your activists, your fellow members and, most importantly, the voters.

Neil Hay has put Nicola Sturgeon in an impossible situation. If she boots him out, she is left without an SNP candidate in a winnable seat. Yet this approach would not be without precedent. During the 2010 general election, the Conservative candidate for North Ayrshire and Arran referred to homosexuality as “not normal” and when the comments came to light, the Tories suspended him and withdrew support for his campaign. It sent a clear message that his remarks were not acceptable to the party.

The same path is open to Sturgeon but it would mean sacrificing a seat to Labour. Some things, though, are above politics.

Perhaps she’ll get lucky and Hay will make the decision for her. But people look to the First Minister for leadership and, perhaps for the first time since she took office, she didn’t show it on Thursday.

What I find more objectionable than the above comments is a tweet (from his official account) about the composition of the audience for STV’s Scotland Debates programme.

Screen Shot 2016-09-17 at 19.12.30.png

Replace “Scots” with “British” or “English” and that tweet could easily have come from a Ukip candidate. Every time you read it, you come away with another sinister layer of meaning.

As a free-speech fundamentalist, I will defend Hay’s right to tweet almost anything but people who put themselves forward for public office submit to a higher scrutiny.

Once again, however, this is not simply a question of optics or political face-saving. It is about what the SNP is and what it stands for.

I spent yesterday in Edinburgh and heard broad Scots, Morningside politesse, and level seven Weegie.

In Starbucks, there was a Geordie woman arguing with her partner about a burnt saucepan and he was giving as good as he got in a French brogue thick as curdled béchamel. As I waited to cross Princes Street heading for the Mound and a Ruth Davidson photo op, I caught a beguiling Scots German lilt that couldn’t possibly be the work of one man but when I turned round it was.

There were the Home Counties ladies in front of me in WH Smith and the American woman ahead of me on the escalator at Waverley Station who, upon ascending to street level, declared: “So this is Edin-BOWE-ROWE!”

Some of these people will have been visiting for the day but others will live here. Those who do are Scots by my reckoning, insofar as they want to be.

I would never presume to exclude them as “non-Scots” based on their accent or national origin. Even if they were, they would be welcome in my country as guests, neighbours and, with luck, friends.

Like all people from the west, I enjoy getting a dig in at Edinburgh but the truth is I’m taken by its charms. One of them is its unselfconscious cosmopolitanism. Shoulders seem not to stiffen as sharply here at the sound of strange tongues or the sight of new faces. It is not the great melting pot that London offers but it is the closest thing we have in Scotland.

That sense of open identity need not be in tension with Scottish nationality or political nationalism.

The late Bashir Ahmad, the first Scots Asian and first Muslim elected to the Scottish Parliament, is an icon of Scottish nationalism. He launched his Scots Asians for Independence group in 1995 with these words: “It doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is where we’re going together as a nation.”

That is civic nationalism and, though I’ve never asked her, I imagine it captures Nicola Sturgeon’s philosophy quite handily.

The quislings and the foreigners and the old folk who can’t remember what day it is are all part of that journey Scotland is going on. Neil Hay should get on board or get out of the way.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Bundesarchiv, Bild 101III-Moebius-029-12 / Möbius / CC-BY-SA 3.0CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Mademoiselle Ecosse goes to Westminster

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.”

Mhairi Army

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.

“Labour.”

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.

Mademoiselle Ecosse

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.

London calling

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.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Scottish National Party (SNP) by Creative Commons 3.0.

Rennie reminds us why, love them or hate them, we need Lib Dems

It’s not easy to go up against Bernard Ponsonby, STV’s wily and well-informed political editor.

He is unrelenting, menacingly patient, with an acidulous wit, and more often than not knows more about your policies than you do.

Now imagine you’re the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, those breakers of pledges and screwers of students.

Doesn’t sound like a pleasant way to spend an evening, does it?

But Willie Rennie turned the Tuesday night grilling to his advantage by making the case for his party as the moderating force in British politics.

His pitch was this: Yes, it was a difficult decision to go into government with the Conservatives. No, it’s not what anyone would have wanted. But the national interest was at stake and the alternative was a purely Tory government. Imagine how brutalthat would have been.

As I have argued previously, the Libs Dems have a record of achievement in government that divides into two categories: implementation of Lib Dem policy and frustration of Tory policy.

So, thanks to Nick Clegg and his MPs there have been tax cuts for the poor, a £2.5bn pupil premium in England, free school meals for infants, a Scotland-based green investment bank, and a referendum on electoral reform.

But also thanks to the yellow end of the government benches, the Human Rights Act still safeguards our liberties, the inheritance tax threshold has not exceeded £1m, and there has been no like-for-like replacement of Trident. All Tory manifesto commitments; all blocked by the Liberal Democrats.

Rennie told Scotland Tonight viewers: “I came into politics to try to make a difference. I came into politics to try to change people’s lives and give them opportunity to get up and get on. People who are held back because of their family circumstances or their sexuality or a range of issues. I wanted to deal with those issues.”

What do the Lib Dems want to do about those issues if they find themselves back in government? An extra £800m for NHS Scotland, free childcare for all two year olds within five years, and a raise in the personal allowance threshold to £12,500.

It was a tough interview. He struggled on the subject of the “bedroom tax”. While Labour and the SNP want to abolish the policy that sees housing benefit docked for those living in the social rented sector with more bedrooms than occupants, the Lib Dems think it should continue to apply to those who are able to find smaller accommodation but scrapped for those who are not.

Rennie’s attempt to rationalise this most Lib-Demmy of compromises was valiant but will nonetheless have looked to viewers like waltzing on the head of a pin.

He was at his best, though, when questioned on his policy of ending custodial sentencing for personal drug use. Liberalism doesn’t win elections in Scotland; authoritarian populism does. The Lib Dems deserve kudos for taking such a bold and brave policy to the country.

And listen to Rennie selling it: “There are some brilliant people who are drug addicts, really good people, and they deserve another chance. But too often the system lets them down.”

When was the last time you heard a politician talk like that?

But the wisdom of a “progressive” party forming an alliance with the hated Tories was never far from the surface during the programme.

Rennie insisted: “I would never have forgiven myself if we’d let the Tories run the country by themselves. That would have been a negation of my responsibility in politics, not to sit on the sideline and throw bricks but to get involved and perhaps stop the Tories doing their worst.”

The assumption that the Liberal Democrats may only ever work with the Labour Party rests on the fallacy that the Lib Dems are not really a distinct party and merely exist to prop up Labour governments that can’t get over the finish line on election day.

But they are not a straightforward left-of-centre party and, especially on economics, have some instincts that are more right-of-centre. After all, they are Liberals, not just Democrats.

The party is once again what it wasn’t for much of the 2000s: Equidistant from the two main forces of British politics.

Labour has shifted leftwards under Ed Miliband and David Cameron scarcely seems the same man who enjoined us all to hug a hoodie and stick wind turbines on our roofs to save the huskies. Now more than ever, it is vital to have a centrist anchor in our political system.

The Scottish Lib Dem leader has time and again defended the efforts of the coalition to repair Labour’s broken economy, hardly a popular move in Scotland. What else can he do, you might ask. When backed against a wall the only options are come out swinging or cower like a wimp.

What Rennie understands is that Lib Dem voters like persistence. (These are people, after all, who told themselves every four years that “one last heave” would put them in government.) He is telling the party’s 2010 voters – those who aren’t now openly hostile – that whatever the breaks, the Lib Dems will be responsible.

This strategy is almost the exact opposite of the one taken by Rennie’s predecessor, Tavish Scott, in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. Scott infamously had a trainwreck interview with Gordon Brewer on Newsnight Scotland (of blessed memory). He couldn’t muster up anything beyond tepid bromides to support the coalition and looked for all the world like a British Army lawyer dragooned onto the defence team at Nuremberg.

I have no doubt Rennie is as dismayed with the centre-right direction of the coalition as Scott was. Neither man went into politics to cut welfare benefits or raise tuition fees on students. But by sticking to his guns, Willie Rennie is giving his party back a little of something they have so visibly lost: backbone.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Liberal Democrats by Creative Commons 2.0.

Nicola Sturgeon unveils her manifesto for England

Something extraordinary happened today.

The leader of a political party pitched her election manifesto almost exclusively to people who don’t live here and can’t vote for her.

Such is the intensity of Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign of love-bombing England that Scotland was almost a side note at the SNP manifesto launch on Monday.

For the First Minister’s speech, delivered amid the towering rock faces of Edinburgh International Climbing Arena for the benefit of those who like their metaphors sledgehammer-subtle, was directed at people south of the border.

Scotland has all but elected its 55 SNP MPs by this point. The people Sturgeon has to win over are those centre-left voters in the rest of the country. Their support will be her leverage over a weak Labour government as much as any parliamentary arithmetic.

But until now, their image of Scottish Nationalism has been the eternally, inexplicably satisfied coupon of Alex Salmond. The dawning of the Sturgeon Era has replaced an angry middle-aged man with a young, dynamic, amiable woman as the symbol of the SNP.

That shone through her speech almost as luridly as the canary-yellow backdrop to the proceedings at Ratho.

I hate to disappoint Iain Martin but there was no Leni Riefenstahl abseiling with a shoulder-mounted DV camera while Stewart Hosie stood off-stage bawling “Ein Volk, ein Reich, einzwei Referenden”. (Though once the cameras were switched off a lederhosen-and-fishnets clad Angus Robertson did give a particularly rousing rendition of “Springtime for Hitler”.)

Instead, there was a personal appeal to voters across the United Kingdom.

She said: “Even though you can’t vote SNP, your views do matter to me. And you have a right to know what to expect of my party if the votes of the Scottish people give us influence in a hung parliament. So my promise to you is this: If the SNP emerges from this election in a position of influence, we will exercise that influence responsibly and constructively. And we will exercise it in the interests of people, not just in Scotland, but across the UK.”

To this end, the SNP would “make common cause and build alliances with others of like mind” to shift the political centre of gravity to the left. Nationalist MPs, the shiny manifesto said, would vote to end austerity, increase NHS spending across the UK by £24bn by 2020/21, and hike the minimum wage to £8.70 within five years. They would furthermore scrap Britain’s nuclear deterrent, abolish the “bedroom tax”, back EU membership and immigration, and push for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state.

The whole manifesto reads like the Guardian letters page printed on glossier paper.

And as if that wasn’t enough, she brought her party into line with policies where Labour has been to the left of the SNP. Having previously committed to restoration of the 50% tax rate, she now confirmed the Nationalists would back Labour’s mansion tax and tax on bankers’ bonuses.

She did everything but uncork a spicy red, put Barry White on shuffle, and whisper sweet nothings in lefty Britain’s collective ear.

For some, it will be hard to buy Sturgeon’s claim that she wants to do what’s in the best interests of the UK. The first, last, and evermore principle of the SNP, after all, is the demolition of the United Kingdom. The only question is whether longer or shorter-term tactics are best employed to achieve this end.

This may be true and her commitment to progressive solidarity across the nations and regions of a country she tried to dismantle may ring implausible. But just over two weeks from now, Sturgeon will in all likelihood hold the balance of power at Westminster. Plausibility is nice and all but it’s got nothing on 50ish seats in the House of Commons.

Labour strategists think they can govern as a minority and dare the Nationalists to vote them down. Sturgeon’s tactic is to present her party as a natural ally of Labour and dare Ed Miliband to rebuff them. The Westminster political class has come to realise that Nicola Sturgeon is more likeable than any of them. What they’re about to learn is that she’s smarter, shrewder, and wilier too.

In government in Edinburgh, the SNP has overseen 100,000 cuts to college places and a 7000 plummet in staff numbers, an NHS failing to meet its A&E targets, and a council tax freeze which “disproportionally benefits the wealthy”. Yet Sturgeon is able to present hers as the party of improving public services, reducing inequality, and progressive politics.

Call it hypocrisy. Call it chutzpah. But it is a skill that she has in spades at a time of widespread cynicism about politicians and their candour.

It is not that Scotland has “gone mad”, or at least not any more than Britain did for New Labour in 1997. Indeed, that comparison is useful for understanding the phenomenon at play north of the border. After 18 years of Tory government, the UK (including Scotland) wanted to believe in Tony Blair so much that it built him up as a near-messiah figure, a pedestal from which the only way was down.

People in Scotland want to believe. Not only and perhaps not even in independence but in a personality politician and a movement that makes them feel empowered. The SNP says things don’t have to be this way, another country is possible. Like New Labour, the SNP will do some good and it will make some mistakes but in the end it will leave people feeling let down. Such is the way of it when parties are swept to power on the unscalably high expectations of voters who are more optimistic than realistic.

That is why the oil price collapse hasn’t dented the SNP’s support. It is why the Nationalists can demand full fiscal autonomy immediately then, when a £7.6bn black hole is found, change the name to “full financial responsibility” and say not to worry because it would take years to implement anyway. It is why Sturgeon can promise a “once in a generation” referendum in 2014 and have changed her mind by 2015.

The public has made up its mind and won’t be reasoned with. Take your inconvenient facts and shove them.

Monday’s speech reminded us of something else: Sturgeon is pure class. In taking questions from journalists, she warned her activists and candidates to treat the media “respectfully” and recognise that reporters have a right and duty to “scrutinise” SNP policies. Where Salmond would have played to the crowd, she spoke to the country. And that country wasn’t Scotland, it was the United Kingdom.

(That said, liberal London, the pundits who have fairly cooed over the SNP leader, might care to reflect why the First Minister felt the need to give her supporters a public lesson in Democracy 101. It is no longer taken as given amongst some in Scotland that reporters have a right to hold politicians to account, or at least one party’s politicians.)

It was far from her best speech, shorter than most and flat in parts. But even on her worst day, Sturgeon is better than every other Scottish politician put together. One need not be a swivel-eyed Saltire-waver to be carried away by her uplifting rhetoric.

But it is rhetoric and after May 7 the messy business of parliamentary politics begins in earnest. And here things could get interesting.

So much of the criticism of the SNP is predicated on the assumption that they are wrong. That their approach to austerity is idealistic mush at best, populist bluster at worst, and doomed to failure. That the rest of the UK is not willing to be pulled to the “left”, or what passes for left in SNP terms. That English voters will not see the hand of friendship but the scraped knuckles of nationalism.

But what if they’re right? What if there is a “progressive” majority across the four nations and a Labour-led, SNP-driven government was able to grow rather than cut our way to a balanced ledger? What if austerity was scrapped, the “bedroom tax” axed, and (less likely) £100bn earmarked for upgrading our nuclear deterrent diverted to schools and hospitals?

What if, in short, the UK became more like the independent Scotland envisioned by Sturgeon? What reason would there be left for all but the most committed Nationalist to vote Yes in a future referendum?

That is a consideration for another day. Today was all about wooing the English centre-left. Relying on the highly scientific metric of counting the number of “I wish I could vote for her down here” comments in my Facebook timeline, I’d say a lot of them are making puppy-dog eyes right back at her.

Originally published on STV News.

How Jim Murphy learned to stop worrying and love the Left

Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay delivered an unapologetically left-wing speech at the launch of his party’s general election manifesto.

The socialist firebrand roused the faithful with pungent class warfare rhetoric as he rolled off a roster of Old Labour policies.

He promised to tax high earners and their mansions and spend the money on the NHS. There would be a crackdown on tax avoidance, more state intervention in the economy, and redistribution of wealth from the richest to the poorest in society.

Moderates within the Labour Party warned the document could come to be seen as the longest suicide note in hist–

Wait a minute. This isn’t right.

Jim Murphy won the Scottish Labour leadership, not Neil Findlay. You know Jim. Tall fellow. Lovely cheekbones. Somewhere to the right of Ioannis Metaxas.

But there he was at the Tollcross Leisure Complex in Shettleston on Friday, unveiling tax grabs and spending sprees that wouldn’t just make the pips squeak but give them heavy-weird flashbacks to the 1970s. (Team Murphy has spent so much time talking about the SNP helping topple Labour in ’79 that I fear it has become convinced it is the Callaghan government.)

I say “there he was”. It took him 50 minutes after the billed kick-off time to arrive in the hall. The Messiah can tarry but not someone 28 points behind in the polls.

The delay at least gave hacks an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere. Activists were dotted around the venue, decked out in lurid and in some cases pleasantly tight T-shirts branded with “#toriesout”, though juxtaposed with the colour red this inadvertently recalled the Nationalists’ favourite anti-Labour cry.

The backdrop for the event was a series of pastel-hued boards promising, inter alia, a “ban on exploitative zero hours contracts” and “more powers for the Scottish Parliament”.

Mercifully, Margaret Curran finally took to the podium to introduce Jim but alas it was all a ruse. She was in fact teeing up Melanie Ward, the candidate for Glenrothes and Central Fife and the person who would actually welcome La Murphy onto the stage.

Curran is the bête noire of the Nationalists, many of whom despise her and some of whom delight in abusing her online with ostentatious viciousness. She is, however, a street-fighter par excellence and easily the toughest Labour MP around. The manifesto was being launched in her Glasgow East constituency and her remarks reflected her two-pronged strategy for holding off the SNP challenge. First there was the hope – “we are within touching distance of a majority Labour government” – then peanuts for the anti-Tory crowd. “You are the people who could give Iain Duncan Smith his P45,” she quipped to enthusiastic applause.

In truth, the polls indicate that even this won’t be enough to save Curran on May 7 but she’s taken the seat back from the Nationalists once before and only the brave or foolhardy would write her off.

Melanie Ward, a rising star, told the room that 71,000 people depend on food banks in Scotland, 80,000 are on zero-hours contracts, 180,000 are on the waiting list for social housing, 200,000 children live on the breadline, and 820,000 Scots are in poverty. Labour would tackle these social ills because “Scotland succeeds when working people succeed”. The brutality of the statistics was both depressing and underscored the dire straits in which Labour finds itself: If it can’t beat an SNP with a record like that, will it ever be able to beat them again?

Finally, it was time to hear from Jim. After all, he was the one we’d all been waiting (almost an hour) for.

His angular frame slid on stage to applause and foot-stomping (New Labour really is dead) from candidates and activists. He has failed to turn around Labour’s dismal poll numbers but the rosetted ranks know he is still their best bet to avoid a complete wipeout.

His remarks were aided by an easy speaking style that is able to capture attention and hold it. Fortunately, he’s stopped talking in that patronising whisper and his voice is now much bolder.

He still, however, prefaces entirely uncontroversial remarks with an almost defensive “of course”. Of course sunshine is a nice thing. Look, the Nationalists are trying to tell us that sunshine is less Scottish than they are. Of course that’s nonsense. We know it’s not true because we love Scotland. Of course we do. We are proud, patriotic Scots and we want nothing but the best for our sunshine. And I say to the SNP, those rays don’t belong to you. They belong to everyone in Scotland, no matter how they voted in the referendum. Of course they do.

But in one of the day’s many unBlairite notes, Murphy’s speech was far more about substance than style. The centrepiece was a £1bn package of investment for Scotland’s NHS, which Scottish Labour says is in crisis under the Nationalists.

There would be 500 more GPs to go with the 1000 additional NHS nurses already pledged. A £200m cancer fund would give patients access to the very latest and best in drugs while a further £200m would be spent helping people with mental health problems, an issue Murphy has commendably made his own.

On jobs, there would be a guarantee of work or training for those in long-term unemployment, regardless of age. The minimum wage would be raised to at least £8 an hour and would subsequently be replaced by a living wage. Exploitative zero-hours contracts – one wonders how much heavy lifting that adjective is doing – would be banned.

The 50% tax rate for the wealthy would be brought back. Say good riddance to the “bedroom tax” and hello to rent controls and energy price freezes.

He announced plans for state regulation of the bus companies. “Yes, Mr Souter,” he added with bitchy shamelessness.

And as for tax avoiders? Everyone else pays, he noted, before intoning with a laudably straight face: “Labour is serving notice that it’s time for the super-rich flying in from Monaco on their private jets to do the same.”

Jim is 47, from Eastwood, and for his talent portion tonight he’ll be doing his Derek Hatton impersonation.

So unreservedly Old Labour was the speech that there were points where it looked like Murphy might thrust his fist in the air and command the starvlings to arise from their slumbers.

Scottish Labour is throwing the kitchen sink at this election. (I’m surprised they haven’t committed to nationalising the sink.) The worst outcome would be losing. The second worst would be winning. At some point, people are going to start asking how that promised “fairest nation on Earth” is coming along.

Murphy’s shift from the right to the left is remarkable. As conversions go, it’s Damascene — if Saul of Tarsus had found Christ and immediately become a Seventh Day Adventist. Labour politicians used to discover socialism after reading Marx or Laski. Jim Murphy discovered it after reading the opinion polls.

That stands in testament to the earthquake tearing through Scotland. The unleashing of nationalism in the country at large has not only tipped the balance in the SNP decisively in favour of the fundamentalists, it has compelled Scottish Labour to change and return to its left-wing roots. Whether the public will buy Murphy’s and his party’s change of heart as genuine is another matter altogether.

Jim Murphy, a one-man rejoinder to the adage that God loves a trier, has poured every last ounce of effort into this campaign. But the polls detect very little in the way of movement, except for when they’re showing even larger swings to the SNP.

None of this makes sense. Murphy is one of the most skilled politicians of his generation. He is young, handsome, energetic, and easily charming in person. He is almost perfectly attuned to the hopes and fears of aspirational voters. Some of his advisers are amongst the best in the business and they get him on TV daily saying more or less the right thing. He has now notched up several strong debate performances against Nicola Sturgeon and the other leaders.

Of course, of course, it makes perfect sense. It’s a retread of the Kinnock Dilemma: Stick to your unpopular policies and you’ll never be elected but will get credit for a principled stance. Jettison your principles and you’ll still be unelectable because no one trusts a politician who suddenly drops everything they’ve believed in.

But we are where we are and we should judge Scottish Labour’s manifesto on its own merits. And if chief amongst your concerns is a more left-wing direction for public policy, this document has it in spades.

The SNP will unveil its election promises on Monday but unless the Nationalists roll out a major policy shift, Scottish Labour will be going into the election with arguably the most social democratic and openly redistributionist manifesto of all the mainstream parties.

“The SNP is not a proxy for a Labour government,” Murphy warned, “It is a roadblock to a Labour government.”

Taken on its merits, his manifesto offers voters a radical, reforming Labour government of the kind many SNP supporters would like to see.

The question is: Are the voters willing to take anything Labour says on its merits now?

Originally published on STV News.

David Coburn interview shows what Ukip is and what it is not

Ukip is not the party that “stands up for ordinary people”.

It is not the party that “tells it like it is” or “hits the nail on the head” or “says what everyone else is thinking”.

It doesn’t “speak truth to power” or take on the “PC mob”, the “human rights brigade”, or the “Eurocrats”.

It is not the custodian of Britain’s dwindling reserves of common sense.

What Ukip is was shown up once again when David Coburn MEP, the party’s sole elected representative in Scotland, joined Bernard Ponsonby for an extended interview on Wednesday evening.

Viewers will have seen just another populist outfit, political panderers on the make. But shameless opportunism has never yet been a barrier to political success and the Eurosceptic nationalist party finds itself on roughly 15% in UK polls for May’s General Election.

It was an opportunity for Mr Coburn to make the case for a Ukip vote and have the party’s plans placed under the microscope. What his answers lacked in policy understanding, he certainly made up for in spirited advocacy.

The public should vote Ukip, he said, because it stood for “jobs, jobs, jobs” and boasted that, unlike the other parties, Ukip’s manifesto was “fully costed”.

Scots who wish to be “wean[ed] off the Barnett Formula” will be able to vote Ukip, which wishes to cut £1.5bn from the block grant next year alone. After all, as Mr Coburn pointed out, “it’s not a one-way ticket where the Scots can say, ‘We want this’.”

Barnett would be replaced by a “needs-based formula”, the specifics of which — such as the formula itself — remained elusive. It was eventually established that this mystery mechanism would see Treasury transfers to the Scottish Government slashed by £5.5bn by 2019/20.

Where to begin plugging such a black hole? Well, the First Minister’s £135,605 salary of course. Mercifully, these interviews are time-limited and so we were spared suggestions that Fergus Ewing take up a second job as a stripper or the Bute House silverware be bunged on Gumtree. (That said, if you’re reading this, Nicola, I’m in the market for a coffee machine if you’ll make me a reasonable offer.)

Predictably, immigration was a top talking point. He spoke of cutting inward migration by 50,000 per year and imposing a moratorium on unskilled labour for five years. Mr Coburn is many things but faint-hearted is not one of them. It’s not many politicians who will go on television and pledge to take our modestly recovering economy and give it a right good shoeing.

But for all his enthusiasm, Mr Coburn does not give the impression of a politician in full command of the finer details of policy.

Mr Ponsonby enquired about the primary purpose rule in family visa applications, a defunct immigration policy which Ukip’s manifesto commits to reviving. He didn’t know what it was. (A supposed safeguard against the use of sham marriages to circumvent the immigration laws.)

The veteran broadcaster pressed him on the number of family visas issued last year. He didn’t know how many. (It was 35,000.)

“There has been an industry of marriage in this country,” he felt nonetheless confident enough to pronounce, “and that’s got to stop.” And with that, our great national dream of an Elvis chapel in every Tesco was crushed.

The nadir came when he was grilled about Ukip’s plan to scrap the Barnett Formula. Mr Ponsonby handed the MEP the relevant page from his own manifesto, like an executioner gifting the noose to the condemned man. How much would Ukip’s proposal cut from the Scottish block grant next year? 1.5%, he assured the presenter with the aid of the helpful page. Only the figures in the table weren’t in percentages but billions. Once again, he simply didn’t know the answer.

Given the various outbursts by party figures, it was impossible not to ask if Ukip had an intolerance problem. The question was illustrated by an incident at the Ukip manifesto launch earlier on Wednesday. Christopher Hope, the chief political correspondent on the Daily Telegraph, asked Nigel Farage if he was “happy that the only black face in the document is on the overseas aid page”. The room erupted in furious booing, to which Mr Farage applauded along.

Mr Coburn insisted: “Ukip doesn’t see a difference between people of different ethnic origins. If you’re a British citizen, you’re a British citizen. That’s it.”

A laudable sentiment but one which sits uneasily alongside the more pungent rhetoric sometimes heard from his party. Anyway, he said, Mr Hope’s question was indicative of the prejudices of the “metropolitan elite”. The Daily Telegraph, that notorious den of right-on liberals and pinko subversives.

And what of Mr Coburn’s own genre of comedy that recently saw him pun on Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf’s name to invoke the convicted Islamist terrorist Abu Hamza? Well, that was an “inappropriate joke” for which he apologised. What it told us was not that he is a boor or a loudmouth but that he is “a human being”.

The joke, unfortunately, is on the rest of us.

We in Scotland get mightily supercilious when the subject of English nationalism is raised. Our nationalism is civic and civilised; theirs is hateful and vulgar. Wish trees and Lady Gaga pastiches are a million miles from tattoos and stale lager. It is true that Scottish nationalism resides, for the most part, within the civic nationalist tradition and the SNP deserves credit for that. But English nationalism is no less valid than its Celtic counterparts.

There is genuine anger across England, shallow in some places, deeper in others. Whole families endure the indignity of unemployment and people working two jobs still take home poverty pay. The centre parties have grown so alike in recent years — in policy, expenses claims, and contempt for those fringe parts of the UK that lie outwith London — as to seem indistinguishable.

Crime continues to fall and yet many will swear blind it’s rising. The world is changing at lightning pace and everything from the jobs market to the culture is seized by permanent revolution. The old certainties are evaporating daily and this provokes fear in those who have known nothing else. People already on the bottom rung of the ladder feel like they’re being stiffed yet again.

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have their own devolved parliaments but England must make do with sharing the House of Commons. English voters believe themselves to be subsidising the Scots’ higher education, prescriptions, and haggis-flavoured heroin. Isn’t it about time England got some of the spoils?

Ukip is not in the business of assuaging concerns like these and solving the underlying problems. It is in the business of apportioning blame.

Can’t get a job? Blame the foreigners. Three weeks for a GP appointment? Blame the HIV patients. Out of step with changing attitudes? Blame the gays and the ethnic minorities. Another headline about murder, rape, and depravity? Well, it’s these European judges, innit. Human bleedin’ rights, that’s what it is. Country’s gone to the dogs, mate.

Ukip is the reassuring echo for people who think £24 per £100 in benefits are claimed fraudulently (the official estimate is £0.70) or the quarter of Brits who believe international aid is amongst the big-ticket spending items in the budget. (We spend £11.4bn on overseas development assistance, or 0.72% of gross national income.)

No prejudice goes unstoked, no misconception unexploited.

“Believe in Britain,” its slogan enjoins. But does Ukip believe in Britain? The Britain where around 8,000,000 of us were born in another country. The Britain where one in every ten NHS staffers is a foreign national and one in every four doctors is from overseas. The Britain where immigrants (EU and non-EU combined) poured £25bn into the national coffers between 2001 and 2011.

That Britain is as foreign to Ukip as a Polish plumber. These statistics do not impinge on the Ukip worldview but this shouldn’t surprise us. In some ways, it is not a political party at all but an organised spasm, a paroxysm of anger and ignorance flailing out at the nearest available target.

Spare a thought for the poor democrat who laments the excessive bureaucracy, unaccountability, lack of transparency, and error-ridden accounts of the European Union. Consider those loyal to parliamentary sovereignty whose standard bearers were once Michael Foot, Barbara Castle, and Tony Benn but are now Nigel Farage, Mark Reckless, and David Coburn.

None of the mainstream parties is serious about reforming the EU but Ukip isn’t serious about anything. It’s a protest vote for those not quite sure what they’re protesting.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Ian Roberts by Creative Commons 2.0.

About that Scottish social democratic consensus…

Some truths are so appealing even facts can’t refute them.

Received wisdom is particularly enervating in politics because it calcifies myth and frustrates free-ranging debate.

We already have enough blind faith in Scottish affairs so a new poll on public attitudes towards welfare is to be welcomed for delivering a dose of reality.

The YouGov survey for the Scottish Conservatives shows a towering 65% of Scots in favour of the coalition government’s cap on benefits. The payment ceiling limits financial assistance to couples and single parents to £26,000, with ministers arguing that people should not receive more in benefits than the average family income.

David Cameron says a re-elected Conservative government would aim to reduce the cap to £23,000, and the poll finds 54% of Scots in agreement with the Tory Prime Minister.

These findings build on a healthy body of data showing that Scotland is philosophically indecisive, in places conventionally collectivist, in others surprisingly right-wing.

A 2013 poll conducted by Ipsos-MORI for the Department of Work and Pensions probed UK-wide views on housing benefits. On the “bedroom tax”, 37% of Scots gave their backing to coalition’s policy of scrapping the “spare room subsidy” while 44% were unfavourable to the idea.

Scottish respondents were on a knife-edge on the general question of cutting state support to those living in social rented housing – 39% were in favour and 38% against. These spreads of opinion do not bespeak a country united in revulsion at Tory welfare reforms.

A 2015 Scottish Government study into attitudes towards poverty, inequality and welfare also portrays a country deeply conflicted in its views of the role of the state in correcting inequality. When asked whether the government should redistribute wealth from the well-off to the worst-off, 48% say yes.

But ask our thoughts about the mechanism by which such transfers are achieved and it’s a different story. Forty-eight percent want to keep levels of taxation and spending where they are at present while 44% want to hike them.

In some ways, Scots unconsciously echo their national bogeyman Margaret Thatcher in their emphasis on individual over social causes of poverty and exclusion. More than seven in ten voters believe child poverty is caused by negative lifestyle choices, such as the refusal of parents to find work. Less than three in ten identify societal causes.

It’s not quite a case of there being no such thing as society, but we certainly assign it little weight in tackling inequality.

Public sentiment on unemployment benefits is hardly progressive either, with 47% of Scots saying payments are too high and disincentivise work. It’s not just Norman Tebbit who thinks people should get on their bike.

At the start of the year, the left-wing pro-independence website Wings over Scotland commissioned a series of Panelbase surveys comparing public attitudes in Scotland with the rest of the United Kingdom. The results were the occasion for a collective intake of breath amongst the Wish Trees for Yes set, as they discovered a Scotland outwith Byres Road and beyond the pages of the Sunday Herald.

Here they encountered backing for capital punishment, the monarchy, and nuclear weapons and opposition to immigration and defence spending cuts. This wasn’t the Scotland on whose behalf they had fought and sweat and interpretive-danced to cast off the shackles of Westminster neoliberalism. This was a country at one with key centre-right assumptions. It was almost as if Scotland was just like… England.

But that couldn’t be. The myth of Scottish difference is pivotal to a certain strain of nationalism. England is a foreign country, greedy where Scotland is generous, mean-spirited where Scotland is compassionate. Scotland shouldn’t be independent simply for democratic reasons but for moral ones: We’re better than them.

Are we, though? Comparing Scottish and English attitudes towards inequality, tax, and wealth redistribution, John Curtice and Rachel Ormston concluded in 2011 that “Scotland is more social democratic than England – but the difference is only modest”. Moreover, they discovered, “Scotland has become less – not more – social democratic since the advent of devolution”.

How much of this modest distinction is the work of our syrupy self-image as an egalitarian people who are all Jock Tamson’s bairns? Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation, by all means, but not an imaginary nation. Scotland is not a saint-like country, devoutly selfless and committed to realising socio-economic harmony here on earth. We are a bundle of contradictory instincts — sometimes honourable, sometimes base — just like every other nation.

In recent years, Scottish Labour has strained to talk to our lofty ideals while governing to our more material desires. In doing so, it has tangled itself up to the point where it seems neither sincere about social justice nor serious about economic growth. The SNP will most likely do the same because it too believes this head-versus-heart dichotomy is something to be triangulated away.

But what if someone were to embrace it? What if a political leader were to make a pitch to that aspect of our political character that wants lower taxes, choice in public services, and a good deal more thrift with taxpayers’ money? What if there was a party that recognised that people outside Newton Mearns and Milngavie are aspirational too?

That party would be liberal in temperament and progressive in vision but sceptical of grand schemes and unfunded good intentions. It would be a compassionate and socially conscious movement but one in rebellion against the statist orthodoxy. It would not be a conservative party but a radical one, leading a permanent revolution in education, enterprise, and public services.

There is a forgotten Scotland out there. Who will stand up for it?

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © BagoGames by Creative Commons 2.0.