In praise of the leaflet-stuffers, door-knockers and dog-dodgers of #GE15

How did you spend your weekend?

A wallet-lightening trip to the cinema? A day (and night) down the pub? Watching the Hearts trounce Cowdenbeath Rovers 10-0?

Maybe you spent Saturday in B&Q buying units and shelves for a new kitchen – or duct tape and a rope pulley to recreate some scenes from (the embarrassingly vanilla) Fifty Shades of Grey.

What you probably didn’t do is run up and down tenement stairs, thrusting luridly-hued glossy leaflets into the letterboxes of unsuspecting pensioners and pressing harassed mothers for some, even the vaguest, hint of how they plan to vote in the general election.

But that is how hundreds, perhaps thousands, of political activists spent their Saturday. With just over two months to go until the nation heads to the polls in the closest vote in a generation, the political parties know they have to reach as many electors as possible, and fast.

To some people, this might seem a strange way to pass precious days away from work. The stereotype of the political campaigner is that of an oddball obsessive with a car boot full of party literature and a passenger seat distinctly lacking a girlfriend. The sort of person who brings to mind the late comedian Linda Smith’s description of John Major: “The man who ran away from the circus to become an accountant”.

This is grossly unfair. This army of envelope-stuffers and canvassers are the lifeblood of our electoral system. Door-slammed as irritants by voters, dismissed as creepily ambitious by journalists, and eyed with suspicion as uppity territory-markers or mouth-foaming ideologues by their own party HQ, activists are unjustly maligned given how much they contribute.

Who else gives their free time to a party, even as it slaps them in the face with high-handed internal directives and shoddy vote-grabbing compromises? Who else is willing to scale tower blocks — tip: always start at the top and work your way down for your own safety — lugging sacks of flyers they’ve been given no say in compiling? Who else braves flu-inducing weather, disgruntled voters, knuckle-skinning letterboxes, and finger-chomping Rottweilers? Who else would be willing to shimmy up lampposts on a weekday night to fasten posters announcing the name of a candidate who was probably imposed by the party hierarchy because all those local chumps couldn’t pick someone young, articulate, and box-tickingly electable?

Who else does all this and receives no reward, save for the modest purse of maybe being selected to fight an impossible council by-election on the other side of the country if, and only if, every other candidate has run a mile?

So, let’s hear it for election campaigners and the important work they do. And what does that work involve?

Well…

You have to deliver a lot of leaflets

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.44.52.png

I mean, a lot

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.45.08.png

At least some things are improving

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.47.06

Someone will ALWAYS get their flyers printed in That England. Which is some kind of laminated treason.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.48.06.png

It means pounding the pavements, come rain…

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.49.14.png

… or more rain

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.50.18

It keeps you in good shape, though

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.51.15

Supermarket car parks become your second home

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.52.09.png

You have to pretend to be impressed by Tom Harris’s ability to name every Doctor Who actor in under one minute

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.52.58.png

50% of your time will be spent fake-smiling for pictures in the sodding rain

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.53.40.png

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.54.23.png

The other 50% will involve the inevitable campaign selfies

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.55.29Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.55.13

Oh, and there are babies

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.57.17.png

So. Many. Babies.

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 23.57.47.png

You will agree to bring back hanging, flogging, and Pam Ayres to Radio Three just to get access to a bathroom

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 00.08.59

But you won’t be welcome at every door

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 00.11.08.png

And someone always has to take one for the team

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 00.11.59

And at the end of it all, you are legally obliged to tweet the same message

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 00.13.37Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 00.13.27

Election campaigners, we would not only give you a great response on our doorstep. We would salute you.

giphy

Originally published on STV News. Feature image secretlondon123 by Creative Commons 2.0.

Future of the Conservatives lies in being good, not just right

Political parties, let alone incumbent ones, don’t usually engage in public soul-searching ten weeks out from a general election.

But with the ballot box looming, some of Britain’s leading Tory commentators are wondering aloud if the Conservatives are on the (centre-)right path.

This kind of discussion may seem irrelevant in Scotland where the Tories will be delighted to pick up two seats. Yet, realistically, David Cameron is one of only two candidates who can be Prime Minister in May. Whether Scotland likes it or not, the ideological direction of the Conservative Party matters.

Influential Conservatives Tim Montgomerie and Stephan Shakespeare have launched a new campaign, the Good Right, to fashion a conservatism that can win over voters who dismiss the Tories as the party of the rich. Their 12-point plan slaughters any number of Thatcherite sacred cows, from recommending a house-building programme to a tax on luxury goods, and proposes new ideas that won’t sit well with blue-rinse Tories. (Forcing private schools to ensure one in every four new pupils is on a scholarship from a state school anyone?)

Mr Montgomerie, a former Tory speechwriter and the founder of the ConservativeHome website, has identified a malaise in his party: “The Tories haven’t won a majority in the House of Commons since 1992. They’re unlikely to win the next one either – despite a booming economy and despite the unpopularity of Ed Miliband. The reasons are pretty straightforward.

“The party has never ditched its ‘party of the rich’ problem that grew up during the ‘Loadsamoney’ era of the 1980s; that worsened when Tory MPs came to be seen as sleazy in the 1990s; and which has only worsened during the last five years.”

Former Tory MP and Times columnist Matthew Parris has accused the prime minister he once championed of “trashing his own brand” by tacking to the right and pandering to Ukip sympathisers. Even the Spectator, that great organ of measured and considered conservatism, has taken on a panicked tone.

In the 1970s, a new editorial warns, “the greatest threat to the Conservatives was socialism. Now, the biggest threat to Conservatism is inequality. It is hard to defend the system of free enterprise when it seems that the rising tide just lifts the yachts. It’s hard to talk about a recovery when the average salary is lower than it was eight years ago. And it’s hard to talk about fairness when young graduates who work hard find they still cannot afford a house at the age of 30. There is a feeling that a new divide is opening in Britain — and that the super-rich, especially those of certain age, have spun off into a world of their own.”

When David Cameron took over the Conservative Party in 2005 there was much optimism. “Let sunshine win the day,” he told party members in a speech the following year. The Conservatives, he promised, would “change and modernise our culture and attitudes and identity” to show that “we’re comfortable with modern Britain and that we believe our best days lie ahead”.

There is such a thing as society,” he clarified. “It’s just not the same thing as the state.”

That positive, forward-looking Toryism has slipped from the agenda. There are several reasons for this. The financial catastrophe forced the Tories to cut more and more deeply than Mr Cameron probably expected in opposition, when George Osborne vowed to “share the proceeds of growth between increased spending on public services and a reduction in taxation and borrowing”. But Mr Cameron’s modernisation project is no longer merely stalled; it is now going into reverse, at speed and in a panic. The man who worked hard to shed the ‘nasty party’ label has allowed the Tories to become a no-more-Mr-Nice-Guy outfit, lashing out at immigrants, the obese, and alcoholics and drug addicts in desperate hope that a mini-tide of populism can take him over the line on May 7. It can’t and it won’t.

What the Tory leader fails to grasp is that winning headlines is not the same thing as winning votes. For every soft-Ukipper he lures back by trying to sound tough, he risks losing a swing voter who is looking for a prime minister and not a discount Richard Littlejohn.

Not that it does him much good. The Prime Minister talks tough on immigration on Monday, only to be slapped down on Wednesday by new figures showing net immigration at just under 300,000. Mr Cameron has trapped himself in a demented cycle of self-harm. He sees a poll showing support leaking to Ukip, makes a tabloid-friendly pronouncement, looks ridiculous trying to pass himself off as a street-hardened hood in a Jimmy Cagney movie, realises it hasn’t won back any support, and so he ramps up the volume next time.

There is a split emerging in the Conservative Party. It is not a replay of the Wets-vs-Drys battle even if it might be mistaken for such. This division is as much about tone as ideology and owes more to policy than to philosophy. It pitches establishment Toryism against an insurgent blue collar conservatism that wants to see the party position itself on the side of the lower middle classes, women, ethnic minorities, and small business owners. The two most effective champions of working-mum conservatism are Robert Halfon and Priti Patel, though both have become necessarily more muted after taking up government roles. Halfon and Patel differ vividly – he is a trade unionist who wants the party to reach out to organised labour, she is a Thatcherite ultra who says there is “nothing civilised” about trade unions – but they both understand that in policy and tone the Conservatives must place themselves as the party for “aspirational” Britain.

This is not about repudiating Thatcherism, much of which even its most visceral opponents now accept in their policies, but about the Conservatives recognising that times have moved on. The 1980s have gone the way of shoulder pads and Duran Duran. No one remembers Who Shot JR any more than they understand why the state once owned the major industries and ministers had to consult trade union barons for permission to govern. The Tories don’t have to abandon their principles – they have to remember them.

Freedom, choice and opportunity are supposed to be the nucleus of conservatism. But what substantive freedom is there for people trapped in social exclusion and zero-hours contracts? And what choice is there between a life on welfare and the soft poverty of part-time and minimum wage work? Opportunity is the motor engine of a free market and a healthy society. But the opportunity to own a home requires homes that are affordable, the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career demands accessible education, and the opportunity to improve the lives of your children necessitates low-cost childcare.

Empowering people through good government makes them less likely to rely on big government. But for too many in the Conservative Party, this is blasphemy. Margaret Thatcher would (supposedly) never have done this or that and so it may not even be contemplated. Hewing to strictly constructed ideological catechisms is bone-headed; hewing to them when they prevent you from pursuing policies fundamental to your worldview borders on the deranged.

Contemporary politics presents the centre-right politician with two roads. There is the inclusive and incremental conservatism embodied by Canada’s Stephen Harper or the free-wheeling state-slashing of Australia’s Tony Abbott. The former approach has secured a decade in government for a party that looked for a long time like it would never displace the dominant Liberals. It has not been easy, requiring painful compromise and the parking of more radical ideas, but it brought the Canadian Tories a wave of new voters.

The latter path, taken Down Under, has alienated electors after just over a year of government with harsh cuts, misplaced priorities, and an almost contemptuous aloofness. The opposition Labor Party, which had Buckley’s chance of winning back the voters after being turfed out handily in 2013, now enjoys consistent poll leads. Mr Cameron should consider these two routes to governing as a conservative and choose the road less travelled.

But need he even look as far afield as Ottawa? Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson gave a thoughtful speech to her party’s conference last Friday, overlooked by a lot of us because a) it was too long, and b) it followed the Prime Minister. We were wrong. For the conservatism she described to delegates would no doubt have surprised those who hold the party in contempt.

She said: “I’m not in this for the people who’ve already made it in life. I’m here for everyone who just wants a decent job and to make sure their children have more of a chance than they ever did. I’ve heard them be called ‘strivers’ but I only know them as my friends and family. It is our job – it always has been our job – to stand up for them.”

The Labour Party, remarked Harold Wilson, “is a moral crusade or it is nothing”. At some point in post-Thatcher politics, the Conservatives lost the moral impulse and allowed their opponents a clear run at compassion, dignity, justice, and hope. Those are values that should not merely be embraced but heralded by Tories. Reducing inequality, fighting poverty, and fashioning a fair and inclusive society must take their place in Conservative manifestos alongside tax cuts and paring back regulation.

As Tim Montgomerie understands, the Right not only has to be right, it has to be good. If he manages to remain in Number Ten after May 7, Mr Cameron should recognise that he has been given a rare second chance to reform his party. If he doesn’t, his tenure in Downing Street will long be overshadowed by this great missed opportunity.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Russell Watkins/Department for International Development by Creative Commons 2.0

Rifkind and Straw scandal shows why we must pay MPs more

At this point, politicians should just assume every lobbyist they meet is an undercover reporter from the Daily Telegraph.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw have been secretly recorded by journalists, allegedly offering to use their positions to advance the interests of a (non-existent) Chinese company.

In the video, Mr Straw is said to claim that he has “operated under the radar” in the past to lobby on behalf of a client firm while Sir Malcolm reportedly offered “useful access” to British ambassadors around the world.

The sting is a joint operation between the Telegraph and Channel 4’s Dispatches and will be broadcast on Monday night.

The two men, both former foreign secretaries and elder statesmen of their parties, have had the respective whip withdrawn. The Conservatives are also expected to launch an investigation into the allegations against Sir Malcolm. Both MPs have reported themselves to the parliamentary commissioner for standards.

Both men have been foolish in allowing themselves to be ensnared like this and in failing to do some basic research before agreeing to meet with potential business clients. Sir Malcolm’s off-the-cuff remark that “nobody pays me a salary” will come as something of a shock to his constituents and his future as intelligence and security committee chair is now a matter for speculation.

The question of whether either man has broken any rules is a complex one. The parliamentary code of conduct says:

“It is inconsistent with the dignity of the House, with the duty of a Member to his constituents, and with the maintenance of the privilege of freedom of speech, for any Member of this House to enter into any contractual agreement with an outside body, controlling or limiting the Member’s complete independence and freedom of action in Parliament or stipulating that he shall act in any way as the representative of such outside body in regard to any matters to be transacted in Parliament…”

That sounds fairly definitive but it is more complicated than that. The committee on standards and privileges guidelines state that an MP is forbidden from parliamentary or ministerial advocacy which “seeks to confer benefit exclusively upon a body (or individual) outside Parliament, from which the Member has received, is receiving, or expects to receive a financial benefit, or upon any registrable client of such a body (or individual)”.

However, the guidelines also say that a parliamentarian “may speak freely on matters which relate to the affairs and interests of a body (or individual) from which he or she receives a financial benefit, provided the benefit is properly registered and declared”. That includes working as “a director, consultant, or adviser” and also allows MPs to be sponsored by a trade union (“or any other organisation”), hold other “registrable interests”, and enjoy hospitality.

It is difficult to determine, with only select portions of the recordings released so far, whether there is a reasonable case that the rules have been broken. Perhaps the full programme will make things clearer. Even then, it will be a matter for the standards commissioner to investigate and reach a finding.

Whatever the outcome of that process, the public will already have made up its mind. If the reaction on Twitter and Facebook is anything to go by, the general mood is somewhere between white-hot rage and they’re-all-at-it cynicism.

The public has every right to be angry at politicians appearing to benefit financially from their office. The expenses scandal and a string of lobbying stings similar to the one in question have provoked outrage with voters who justifiably expect politicians to be working on their behalf and not coining in pocket money as corporate shills.

The breakdown of trust between government and the governed that this has precipitated is corrosive to the democratic health of the nation. The impression that every politician is raking it in either by fiddling their expenses or taking brown envelopes from lobbyists, although grossly unfair to most politicians, is now firmly embedded in the popular consciousness. Today’s revelations will only entrench these prejudices further.

But they are prejudices and self-defeating ones. There is a corruption at the heart of our politics but it is not simply veteran politicos offering to have a word in the ear of this functionary or that in return for a bung. It is also our narrow and mean-spirited attitude towards public servants and the whole business of politics.

When the indignation settles in a few days or weeks, and some time before we move on to the next political row or public scandal or media frenzy, Britain will have to begin a grown-up conversation about what we expect from politicians and what we are willing to pay for it.

Before determining what MPs are worth, we need a clearer understanding of what they do. Every MP approaches the role in their own manner but the public seems to have a single, simple conception of the position: An MP is someone paid to sit in Parliament all day voting the way their constituents would like. We see the currency this notion holds in the popularity of tweeted pictures depicting near-empty Commons chambers. (“Only SIX MPs turned up to vote on a ten minute rule motion on gender balance in the recruitment of traffic wardens. THEY JUST DON’T GET IT, DO THEY?!?!”)

Edmund Burke famously told the electors of Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Burke was arguing against the proposition, which finds fashion from time to time, that MPs are mere delegates but his words have taken on a new relevance in this age of anti-politics. Politicians are more than the sum total of ayes and noes in the division lobbies of Westminster. They are better understood as senators, bringing character, insight, common sense, and a critical mind to the regulation of social affairs. Not every MP boasts all these qualities; some have none of them. But they make up the ideal that we should be striving for.

Edwin Morgan captured this ideal best in his poem on the opening of the Scottish Parliament building in 2004:

What do the people want of the place? They want it to be
filled with thinking persons as open and adventurous as its
architecture.
A nest of fearties is what they do not want.
A symposium of procrastinators is what they do not want.
A phalanx of forelock-tuggers is what they do not want.

How do we secure for public life such thinking persons? We don’t do it by responding to these latest revelations the way, for example, Ed Miliband has. The Labour leader is never knowingly considered and barely had the Telegraph landed on the doormat this morning than he was releasing statements and calling for Something To Be Done. Because this is Mr Miliband, that something predictably involves a ban. He wants the rules changed so that MPs are proscribed from taking up paid consultancy roles and further demands that outside income be capped at 15% of a parliamentarian’s salary.

This will secure him some favourable headlines, the barometer of success for a leader of the opposition, but his proposals would bring little practical benefit and risk diminishing the quality of MPs. Once we make it even more difficult to have private sector and business interests while sitting in Parliament, we will see even fewer people from the private sector and business world putting themselves forward for selection. The businesswoman who builds up her empire and learns invaluable skills along the way will be barred from bringing those skills to bear on public policy – unless she is willing to forgo the very consultancies and directorships that would keep her in touch with the challenges and opportunities of business. If she does stand for Parliament, she will be positively brimming with experience and understanding of how business used to work.

It is a common complaint that not enough politicians have had jobs “in the real world” before entering politics. That is a reasonable criticism but it is illogical to bemoan this paucity of everyday experience then restrict the ability of the people who have it to get involved in political life. As well as discouraging incomers, this pose (Mr Miliband’s various statements seldom rise to the level of a position) could have good MPs heading for the exit. Ken Clarke is standing down in May and that’s fortunate since the £26,000 he has received in speaking fees in December and January alone would disqualify him under the Miliband rule. Would losing a rare voice of liberalism and legislative restraint be worth the satisfaction of knowing that the Member for Rushcliffe wasn’t earning a tidy sum for after-dinner talks? Tory MP Conor Burns earns £10,000 quarterly as a consultant to a construction company. We can sling him out the door; openly gay MPs are ten-a-penny. Think Parliament benefits from the life experience of someone like David Blunkett? Sorry, a directorship, paid columns, and speaking fees would rule him out. And let’s hope for Pete Wishart’s sake that there’s no Runrig revival, because an extra £7000 in music royalties would see the former rocker fall foul of Ed’s diktat.

If we want a Parliament bursting to the seams with former special advisers and party apparatchiks, we are going about it the right way.

The elephant in the room amidst all this is the question of remuneration. No one ever won a popularity contest by saying it but we simply do not pay MPs enough. It is true that they earn roughly three times the national average but is that the standard we wish to set for the people who levy our taxes, manage our public services, and decide whether or not we go to war? Serving as a Member of Parliament is not an “average” job, or at least it shouldn’t be, even if some occupants of the green benches are far from illustrious in their contributions to public life.

Yet the salary accorded to MPs is pitifully low, suppressed by governments and party leaders fearful of a public backlash. MPs, on £67,060, earn less than GPs (£92,900), top-of-the-scale headteachers (£107,210), and dentists (up to £81,480). Jack Straw, as MP for Blackburn, earns less than the chief executive of his local council (£136,740 – £149,412), as does Sir Malcolm in Kensington & Chelsea (where the head of the local authority makes £145,755).

(If MPs want to upscale their earnings without running an entire council, they could apply to be head of IT at Aberdeen City Council (£78,717) or try their hand at being leisure director at Dundee City Council (£90,081).)

Do we really value our parliamentarians less than the IT guy at a local council?

Many people will have little sympathy for this argument. Isn’t politics supposed to be about public service, they will snort. It is a peculiar – and perhaps peculiarly British – attitude to public service that is is something to be penalised. Fine, go do good on behalf of others but you’d better be willing to pay the price. No one demands that teachers or nurses or firefighters take a vow of poverty and live on the minimum wage. Yet these are, after all, vocational occupations.

That is because those public servants are Good and politicians are Bad. Heaping scorn and scepticism on our leaders is one of our national pastimes – and probably why odd little men with funny salutes never caught on here – but we shouldn’t let it blind us to unpopular truths. The need to pay good salaries to attract good politicians is one of those truths. If we ignore or reject it, we will get the Parliament we deserve: older, maler, paler, and staler. Anyone who laments the over-representation of the privately educated and well-to-do in the Commons should understand that meagre salaries are a barrier to remedying this social ailment. And if we must ban consulting and severely restrict outside income, a significant salary hike is all the more necessary.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw may be having one of the more unpleasant days of their long careers but they have done us all a great service. Of course, politicians shouldn’t be for hire by corporate interests but when you take talented people, pay them terribly, and make it difficult for them to make outside income, it shouldn’t be surprising that it happens. The unseemly, grubby sight of former Cabinet secretaries furtively hocking their wares forces us to confront our prejudices about politicians and decide once and for all what exactly we expect of them.

Originally published on STV News. Image of Jack Straw © Chatham House by Creative Commons 2.0; image of Malcolm Rifkind © Foreign and Commonwealth Office by Creative Commons 2.0.

David Cameron rallies the Tory faithful at conference

The only things missing were the pom-poms.

David Cameron came to Edinburgh to rally the Scottish Tory faithful, usually an unhappy task for a Conservative leader.

The party has been in the doldrums north of the border for so long that Mr Cameron’s predecessors have copied and pasted the same speech year after year.

“The Tories are coming back in Scotland. We’ve rebuilt our operation. The feedback on the doorstep is increasingly positive. We’re heading for the long-elusive breakthrough. Next year in East Renfrewshire.”

And every time it’s another let-down for the Conservatives, as Scots in even the more affluent areas where once the Tories dominated cleave to their Labour MP.

But the mood is more buoyant at the first Tory gathering since the referendum. The party, and particularly its leader Ruth Davidson, is considered to have had a good referendum. In the no-holds-barred fight for the life and soul of the Union, the Conservatives were in their element. For the first time in years – decades, even – they got to be confident and unapologetic about what they believe and why.

This has yet to pay off in the polls but if optimism could be traded in for vote share, the Tories would be doing quite nicely. While Scottish Labour slowly begins to realise that it is the Road Runner treading thin air after screeching over the cliff, and the Lib Dems pray for a quick death, the Conservatives are united after their first political victory in Scotland in a generation.

That is probably why the Prime Minister’s speech to conference was notably light on policy. Why harsh the good vibes with dreary substance?

The only real ‘news’ in the twenty-minute address was the decision, trailed earlier during a visit to BAE Systems at Govan, to build the next generation of Royal Navy frigates on the Clyde. This, he said, would involve a cash injection of £859m and sustain more than 600 jobs in Scotland.

Philip Hammond, then defence secretary, had warned during the referendum that future UK warships would not be built in a foreign country. Mr Cameron’s announcement was intended to make good on those pre-September pledges that a No vote would secure shipbuilding in Scotland.

The tenor of the speech, however, was more that of a rally than an explication of centre-right philosophy or the outlining of a policy framework.

Much of this ra-ra air-punching involved lauding Ruth Davidson, the Scottish leader whom Cameron recognises as a real talent. Two women, he said, kept him “sane” during the referendum. One was his wife Samantha and the other was the Glasgow MSP.

“The woman who kept battling for our United Kingdom, slugging it to Salmond. It was our very own fighter from Fife.

“Helping to save the United Kingdom – it’s not a bad thing to have on your CV at the age of 36.

“During the course of that campaign Ruth really went the extra mile, even appearing on a double bill with George Galloway. That’s what you call taking one for the team.”

The delegates loved this because they see the same qualities Cameron sees.

Then there was the cheerleading for the Conservative government – no one here is still referring to it as a coalition – and the Tory leader contrasted the economic mismanagement of the later Labour years with his record. He had brought, the hall heard, economic growth, job creation, tax cuts, and safeguarded pensions.

It was what a critical studies professor would call “a radical interpretation of the text”. But unhelpful details and nuance have no place at a party conference. It is not only the Nationalists who can cheerily subdue reality when it suits them.

Cameron is inevitably portrayed as a Tory bogeyman in Scotland, as bastardly as all the bastards who have gone before. But he appears to care sincerely about ingrained, multi-generational poverty and its morally corrosive effect on people and communities.

He said: “Chris White is 18 years old, he’s from the Sandyhills area in the East End of Glasgow – not too far from Easterhouse. When he left school last year he thought he’d get straight into a job – but he had rejection after rejection. Why? Not enough work experience.

“So thanks to the programme that we brought in, Chris was offered the chance of work experience at his local Job Centre. His confidence grew, he got into the world of work, and now he’s got a permanent job – full-time, a regular wage – and he’s loving it.

“He says work experience made all the difference to him. But remember what our opponents said about our plans for work experience? They thought it was heartless and cruel to ask young people to go out to work.

“Don’t these people get it? Lives are being changed. People are working their way out of poverty and into something better.”

Cameron’s plummy tones brought to the word “Sandyhills” a quaint amiability. It sounded less like a poverty-stricken outpost in Glasgow’s east end and more like a Golden Girls-inspired retirement resort in Miami.

But for all that Cameron is not of the world he described, and has little in common with the people who live there, he is undoubtedly genuine in his concern about the spiritual poverty caused by socio-economic exclusion and authentically angry about what he sees as the left’s preference for welfare over work.

He wasn’t just bigging up his own side, though; he was getting stuck in about Labour and the Nationalists. The SNP wants to break up Britain, he said, while the Labour Party would bankrupt it. And the combination of the two – well, that would send the country hurtling into a dire Marxist dystopia.

The man they really call “DC” said: “A vote for anyone other than the Conservatives risks Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister, leading an unstable minority Government. A vote for the SNP is a vote for Labour in Government.

“Nicola Sturgeon has made clear she is up for a coalition with Ed Miliband. As Ruth has put it, the SNP and Labour are halfway up the aisle together already. She’s right. They’ve picked out the wedding list. They’ve booked the honeymoon – probably to North Korea. They’ve set up a joint account – unlimited overdraft obviously.

“And so if you vote for anyone else apart from the Conservatives, you are voting for this outcome: Labour in Government, Ed Miliband in Downing Street and the very real prospect of Alex Salmond coming in through the back door.

“Like a horror movie – he’s back. Only this time – he’s not running Scotland. He would have the decisive say in running a country he wants to see abolished – our United Kingdom.”

Labour, he demanded, must rule out any pact with the Nationalists. To fight the SNP in the referendum and then buddy up with them in government would be “spineless, weak, unprincipled, and short-termist”.

The door-knockers and envelope-stuffers in the room gave their UK leader a standing ovation but nothing he said today is likely to dissuade those soft-Tory voters who have resolved, even privately, to vote Labour to keep the SNP out. They didn’t vote to save the Union six months ago only to see it rent apart by constitutional concessions extracted from a weak Labour government by a large bloc of Nationalists. If that means holding their nose and voting for the socialists, so be it.

How many will do so isn’t clear. The polls suggest any tactical vote isn’t yet sizeable. That, however, might change as the prospect of Westminster dancing to a Salmond-led tune becomes more real in the coming weeks. If it does, so go the hopes for the Tories of picking up another seat.

But if David Cameron, and particularly Ruth Davidson, can convince the 400,000 Scots who backed the party in 2010 to stay in the fold, they might pull off a result that can form the basis of a real breakthrough.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Number 10 by Creative Commons 2.0.

Scottish Tory leader introduces her same-sex partner in election ad

Scottish Conservative leaders aren’t obvious pioneers of same-sex equality.

Ruth Davidson, however, isn’t your average Scottish Conservative leader.

The 36-year-old MSP for Glasgow has broken new ground with a party election broadcast featuring her partner Jen.

The broadcast, released on Wednesday evening shows Ms Davidson and her partner out walking and spending time with the Tory leader’s parents.

It comes ahead of the general election in May, where the Tories are hoping to retain their one Scottish seat and maybe even pick up a second.

The message is one that the Tories have pushed before – give us another look over; we’ve changed – but the difference this time is that Ms Davidson doesn’t just talk about change, she looks like change.

The party’s new ad is aimed at voters who might be receptive to this message but have either stopped listening, or have never listened to the Scottish Conservatives. The understated film – all warm colours and soft lighting – intercuts images of Ms Davidson with her partner and her parents with a personal statement on her background, her beliefs, and the values that guide her.

What she believes are fairly standard Conservative totems such as personal responsibility, hard work, and prizing people over the state. The ad recalls Sir John Major’s 1992 election broadcast, which saw him return to his family roots in Brixton.

So far, so Tory.

Then something quietly extraordinary happens. We see her out walking, talking, and laughing with a woman. I recognised her as 33-year-old Jen Wilson, Ms Davidson’s partner whom I met backstage at an STV referendum debate in Edinburgh. Ms Wilson doesn’t speak during the film – most politicians’ spouses understandably want to keep their public appearances to a minimum – but her presence says a great deal. Here is the leader of the Scottish Conservatives standing with the woman she loves for all the world to see and it’s not a big deal.

There are no fireworks, no handstands, no defiant stares and heads held high in proud and righteous statement. It’s just two people who love each other and it’s perfectly natural, remarkably unremarkable.

It’s difficult to express how powerful this symbol is for young – and older! – LGBT people. If you grew up closeted, as most people over the age of 20 or, at a push 25, did; if you had to hide your copy of Attitude or Diva under the bed; if “poof” and “dyke” and worse were common currency in the classroom; if you felt different and therefore wrong and longed to be “normal” then hated yourself even more for it; if you cringed when watching TV with your parents and a gay person or character or issue popped up; if you made your first furtive pilgrimage to the Polo Lounge or Bennets (of blessed memory), nerves seized in terror that SOMEONE MIGHT SEE YOU; if you never dreamed that you would live to see ignorance give way to tolerance then to acceptance and finally same-sex marriage (with near-colonisation of reality television, soap operas, and teen drama along the way) – this will mean something to you.

You need not be a Conservative or even particularly like Ms Davidson to feel satisfaction and a perhaps ineffable sense of accomplishment in what she has done with this video. Her journey may be personal but we all walked it with her. When the broadcast’s clever coda – “be part of the Conservative family” – appears on screen and you immediately understand its double meaning, you can’t help but smile at how far we’ve come on that journey.

We all stand in our own places and for our own values. For Ms Davidson, she finds herself leader of a party which she is remaking for a new generation for whom gay rights is no longer a politics-and-placards struggle but a subject for glossy Hollywood movies with big-name stars. We’ve heard a lot in the wake of the referendum about our freshly politicised country and some of it’s even been true. But the Scotland that is coming up is not just more political, it’s more relaxed, more confident, more outward-looking and unmoored from the old certainties of class and religion.

Ms Davidson is a reluctant icon for LGBT equality. She is a Conservative after all; identity politics is not her metier. She has not banged a drum but helped set the mood music with timely interventions on same-sex marriage, homophobic bullying, and the UK Government’s absurd display of affection for the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (a moon-eyed romance that was a bit, well, gay). But she is a person, not a symbol, and deserves to be judged as such. It’s time to lay to rest the familiar journalistic cliche “openly gay Tory leader Ruth Davidson”. It still matters but it no longer defines her. Frankly, it’s more remarkable that she’s openly Tory in Scotland than it is that she’s openly gay.

How the public will judge Ms Davidson and her party in May and in next year’s Holyrood elections remains to be seen. Since her election to the Scottish Parliament in 2011, and her underdog victory in the leadership ballot later that year, Ms Davidson has breathed new life into a party too long set in its ways.

The Tories have a bounce in their step, if not yet in the polls, and are working their way towards a centre-right narrative of opportunity, choice and compassion. It’s a vision that could appeal to aspirational Scotland if the SNP finds itself dragged to the left by its new social democratic leader and the influx of ex-Labour voters following the referendum. Much of this new energy comes from the leader herself, her personal dynamism winning praise from opponents and commentators alike during the referendum. She was unapologetic in her defence of the Union and confident that there was a gap in the political marketplace for a socially conscious conservatism.

The polls do not portend a spectacular comeback but there are reasons to be hopeful about a number of rural seats held by the Liberal Democrats, such as Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine. These hopes may end up being washed away in the predicted yellow flood of SNP gains but retaining the sole Tory seat in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale would be acceptable; taking a second seat, a decent result. The party is still toxic in large parts of Scotland, even in well-to-do communities which were once Tory bastions, and while its policy shop has improved immeasurably in recent years – a collection of essays on education reform showed real insight and vision – there is still a long way to go to find a Conservative message that will appeal to Middle Scotland.

During her party election broadcast, Ms Davidson confesses: “One of the things I like most about being leader of the Scottish Conservatives is challenging people, changing their mind, proving that we’re on their side.”

She has certainly challenged us. Now she has to continue working to change minds and convince Scots that her party really is on their side.

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

Will Scottish Labour survive and what will be left of it?

Analysing Scottish Labour’s standing in the opinion polls, the tagline from the 1974 horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre comes to mind: “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”

According to Lord Ashcroft’s landmark Scottish polling, the answer seems to be: Not many and not much.

Make no mistake, the nature and strength of the SNP gains forecast by the Conservative peer’s in-depth surveys is nothing short of a bloodbath.

Douglas Alexander, gone. Margaret Curran, gone. Tom Harris, gone. If Lord Ashcroft’s polling is anything near accurate, May’s election will change the faces of Scottish politics.

But it will signify more than that. The near-elimination of Scottish Labour would mark a generational shift, echoing previous transfers of the popular will from the Liberals to the Unionists and the Unionists to Labour. We will not merely be changing political parties but confirming beyond any doubt that Scotland has changed.

Nowhere is that more vividly symbolised than in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, not only one of Labour’s safest seats in Scotland but one of their safest anywhere in the UK. To find the last time Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and its predecessor constituencies voted for a party other than Labour you have to go back to 1931, when the Unionists narrowly defeated miner and writer James C Welsh. The incumbent MP Tom Clarke won in 2010 with 67% of the vote and a majority of more than 20,000; only once, in 1983 and facing an SDP challenge, has Clarke taken less than 55% of the vote.

According to Lord Ashcroft, the Nationalists are three points ahead in Coatbridge.

Coatbridge.

The Brig.

Little Ireland.

Leningrad-in-Lanarkshire.

Voting SNP.

Six months ago, I would sooner have believed that Rangers was preparing to sign the Pope as their new striker. Now, I’m not so sure. The term “safe Labour seat” has become an oxymoron. There are no safe Labour seats, only SNP seats temporarily in Labour hands.

For this trend is replicated across the 13 other Labour-held constituencies polled by Lord Ashcroft’s researchers and it points to a cataclysmic result for an outfit once deemed Scotland’s Party. This tectonic shift cannot be explained by something transitory, like opposition to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s austerity policies. Those surveyed were, on the whole, optimistic about the economic future both of the country and of their own family.

This is not about economics, primarily. It is about identity and a wholesale redrawing of political allegiances in Scotland.

While this is a terrible poll for Scottish Labour, it may also be their last best chance.

Labour’s age-old line goes: If you vote SNP, you get the Tories. They’ve even put a video out today with that very message:

What this poll illustrates, in dramatic fashion, is that if you vote SNP, you get the SNP. But what then?

It is Scottish Labour’s task to turn voters’ attention to the exquisitely boring but decisive business of parliamentary arithmetic. Because handing the SNP most or all of Scottish Labour’s 40 seats is to hand Ed Miliband a 40-seat handicap in trying to form a Labour government. That may be a good thing. Miliband is far from prime ministerial and Labour has taken Scotland for granted one too many times. Maybe another term for David Cameron and the Conservatives is a price worth paying to punish Labour and install a new dominant party.

But it is a price and honesty requires that the Nationalists be up-front about it. It’s not true, as Scottish Labour is claiming, that David Cameron is eager for big SNP gains on May 7. The Prime Minister is an instinctive Unionist and would rather see the Cotswolds fall to ISIS than deal with a phalanx of pesky separatists demanding more constitutional concessions and another referendum. But if Scotland turning yellow leaves Labour trailing the Tories in number of seats, and Labour refuses to cut a deal with the SNP, then Mr Cameron’s path back to Downing Street, perhaps at the head of a minority government, becomes much easier.

It is unthinkable that the SNP would strike even a confidence and supply deal with the Conservatives, though the poll shows 41% of Nationalist voters are satisfied with Mr Cameron or prefer him to Ed Miliband, against 38% who would rather see the Labour leader in Number 10. It is, however, far from guaranteed that Labour will want to do a deal with an SNP that has just slaughtered their comrades north of the border. They’ll be bruised, resentful, and in no mood for negotiations.

There are much more hard-headed factors at work too. Labour, if it ends up with fewer seats than the Tories in England, cannot afford to be seen as an “illegitimate” government foisted upon a hostile public by an unholy alliance with Scottish Nationalists. Then there is the re-emerging rift between Labour leftists and modernisers, particularly on the role of the private sector in the NHS. To cut a deal with the SNP, which insists it will vote to “protect” the NHS (that is, prevent increased involvement of the private sector), is to invite a re-run of the Blairite-vs-Brownite cold war of the last two decades.

What does Scottish Labour have in its favour? A confident leader in Jim Murphy, a steel-tough street-fighter in Margaret Curran, and a strategic brain in Douglas Alexander. But will it be enough this time?

There is, of course, the possibility that Unionists will vote tactically to keep the SNP out. The Spectator editor and influential Conservative commentator Fraser Nelson writes:

“I’d like the Tories to win the next election, but not as much as I want Jim Murphy to do well. If Ashcroft’s poll is right, then the end of Britain is once again on the cards. The collapse of Scottish Labour will have brought a new constitutional crisis to England’s door and it will be harder than ever to talk about ‘British politics’… Labour would be unwise to expect a dead cat bounce – the Scottish Tories have been waiting 18 years for theirs.

“I’d rather spend a lifetime in a Labour-run Britain than a day in a fractured, diminished, disunited kingdom – and this is what this election now threatens. We thought the union had been saved (just) in the referendum. But the collapse of the last powerful unionist party in Scotland suggests that the battle for Britain may have only just begun.”

Tactical voting is fraught with risk. In some places, it might prevent a Nationalist victory but in others it would make little difference. It would also hand the SNP another battering ram against Labour: They’re back in alliance with the Tories. They just haven’t learned, have they?

Amidst all the calculations about what this poll and its realisation would mean for Scottish Labour, we shouldn’t forget that Scots aren’t just abandoning their old party; they’re embracing a new one. The SNP has done the hard work over many long years to claw Glasgow and the west away from Labour. If they are successful in May, only the most churlish Labour diehard could begrudge them their victory. That victory, however, comes with strings attached.

To be effective powerbrokers at Westminster, the SNP will have to cut deals that will displease some of its supporters and cast votes that will anger others. It will have to become a political party again, not just a movement. That party will have splits, disputes, leaks, and internal wrangling. Veteran Nationalists understand this but the party has to prepare its younger and more excitable new members for the messy compromises and prosaic realities of UK-wide politics. If the SNP can pull off the balancing act required to succeed at Westminster while retaining the enthusiasm and idealism of its supporters, it will be well placed to replicate Labour’s many decades as the national party of Scotland.

That is what the SNP stands to become and the status Labour is set to lose, according to today’s and other polls. Scotland’s national party; the only game in town. Labour would be banished to the political fringes. Coatbridge no more. Airdrie no more. Paisley no more. Motherwell no more. Glasgow no more. We are in the middle of history being made. As for Labour, its MPs and activists could be forgiven for reflecting moodily: “O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts/ And men have lost their reason.” But the problem is not the voters; it is Labour and its toxic brew of arrogance, complacency, and mediocrity.

Labour needs to realise this and act on it. Apologise to Scotland for letting it down, pledge that a Labour government will launch a constitutional convention to deliver a federal UK, then hammer the SNP relentlessly on its failings at Holyrood. Labour did this effectively on Tuesday with an attack on the Scottish Government’s record on A&E waiting times. Do it every single day from now until May 7 and Labour could close the gap enough to stave off a complete wipeout.

Three months to go until polling day and we are five minutes to midnight in the Labour era in Scotland. If the party doesn’t launch a powerful fightback, and launch it now, it could be a very long time before it sees dawn again.

Originally published on STV News

Choosing the chosen

Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philosemite
By Julie Burchill
Unbound, 192 pages

Julie Burchill loves the Jews, and she wants everyone to know it.

The English controversialist informs us at the outset of her new book, Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philosemite: “I have spent my life wrapping myself in the Jewish flag, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally. I open my handbag and half a dozen paper ones on toothpicks…fall out. I look up from writing and see two full-sized ones staring proudly back from my bookcases, framing the Torah. Occasionally, when very drunk, I will literally wrap one around me and cry like a baby.”

Burchill is intense. She comes from an England you don’t see on Masterpiece Theatre. Her origins, as she is fond of telling everyone, lie in the tough-but-genuine British working class that prizes hard work, honor, and decency above all else. She is brash, abrasive, and entirely unreasonable in her mode of argument. She has no stiff upper lip; she’d rather burst someone’s lip, particularly if she finds that someone pompous, hypocritical, or worse, an intellectual.

There is no American parallel to her. Maureen Dowd is too delicate, Elizabeth Wurtzel too navel-gazing. She is Dorothy Parker–meets–Pauline Kael–meets–Ann Coulter—and then they all fight. She was a “hip young gunslinger” on a punk magazine and then a columnist for the establishment Sunday Times; a wife and mother who had a brief and well-publicized spell as a lesbian; a Communist who came to sing the praises of Margaret Thatcher; a working-class girl who spent most of the ’80s in London’s ultra-hip Groucho Club. She has been anti-America and pro-America, contemptuous of the Guardian before serving five years there as a columnist.

But Israel has become an enduring theme in her writing in the past decade or so, and her uncompromising defense of the Jewish state is what a new generation of Britons know her for. Unlike the many antagonistic stances she has previously adopted, this is not one that secretly delights London’s chattering classes. The rewards, financial and social, of championing Israel are modest indeed for a journalist based in that city.

Martin Amis, returning to Britain in 2006 after living in South America, remarked upon a change in liberal London: “The most depressing thing was the sight of middle-class white demonstrators, last August, waddling around under placards saying, ‘We Are All Hizbollah Now.’ Well, make the most of being Hizbollah while you can. As its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, famously advised the West: ‘We don’t want anything from you. We just want to eliminate you.’”

It is against this backdrop of a culture on suicide watch that Burchill operates. Not for her the relativism of the English intelligentsia or the hysterical demonization of Israel that are to be found in the country’s most respectable media outlets. Burchill is characteristically brash about her Zionism: “Israel. ISRAEL! Say it loud and there’s music playing—say it soft, and it’s almost like praying. How could any word be so beautiful—and still is real? ISREAL!”

Unchosen charts her turn to Zion, from her humble beginnings in Bristol where a teenage Burchill had yet to meet a Jew but fantasized about marrying a handsome Jewish man and being accepted as a member of the tribe. When she goes to work in 1977 as a critic at the New Musical Express in London, she gets to escape her WASPy hometown and indulges her fantasy by passing as Jewish. She is crestfallen, and indignant, when the two Jews on the staff fail to rumble her. Jews are to let her down again when she finally marries one, film critic Cosmo Landesman, son of London socialites Jay and Fran, and finds the family depressingly apathetic about its heritage.

Later, Burchill begins attending Shabbat services at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, under the tutelage of its lesbian rabbi (a very progressive synagogue indeed). News of Burchill’s potential conversion makes the front page of the Jewish Chronicle, but her relationship with the rabbi breaks down over the latter’s enthusiasm for Islam and interfaith dialogue.

Burchill quits the shul and writes: “I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a Jew that I wanted to be so much as a Zionist. And I can do this by helping to buy fire engines for frontline Israeli towns like Sderot, and by donating a good whack of cash each year to send care parcels to lone IDF soldiers—and still stay in bed with my husband on a Saturday without having to schlep off to a shul and receive lectures on the wonders of Islam.”

And so she throws herself into Zionism, visiting Israel for spiritual succor in Jerusalem and drunken nights out in Tel Aviv and Eilat. She resigns her column at the Guardian with an acid review of the paper’s obsession with Israel and starts to learn Hebrew. Burchill charts her mitzvot for Israel—some touching, some mad—with gaudy humour and polemical flair.

These memoirs have provoked a backlash in Britain from left-wingers who charge that her philosemitism is patronizing, a fetish, even an elaborate form of anti-Semitism. Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman accused her of “divid[ing] up the chosen people into Good Jews (hardliners, Israelites) and Bad Jews (liberal Jews) with the enthusiasm of an anti-Semite.” Warned Freeman: “Anyone who identifies as a philosemite is to be treated with the same amused contempt as anyone who says they love ‘the African people.’”

Such a histrionic response is hardly surprising from the radical left, but it is quite understandable that Burchill’s sympathies would perplex some, even many, Jews. Philosemitism is something short of a philosophy, an impulse lacking an anchor. Just as Irving Kristol categorized neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” so, too, is philosemitism a prejudice—a prejudice in favor of a people whom philosemites believe to be the most common victims of prejudice. It is, however, more than a mere sentiment. It is a connection to the emotional morality of Zionism.

As Burchill writes: “I don’t like Jewish humor, the films of Woody Allen, or bagels. I don’t think families are the most important thing in the world. I’m not seeking anything from the Jews at all, if the truth be told. I am seeking an absence, a mystery, an unknowable something which happened centuries ago which resulted in a tribe of desert nomads surviving for four millennia—while every sucker, charlatan, and Sadducee attempted to eradicate them—to basically build the modern world. A tribe which then imagined itself into triumphant rebirth as a nation, combative and contrary as all get-out, after ceaseless centuries of roaming in the wilderness.”

Perhaps no one—neither Jew nor dispassionate (or hostile) Gentile—can understand this impulse except the philosemite, and even he has trouble comprehending it. It might be akin to pro-Americanism: those of us outside America who admire—nay, adore—the United States, that overachieving teenager of modern history, and idolize the American people, their leaders, their successes.

The attempt to brand philosemitism as a benign tumor of anti-Semitism, however, seems a crude dismissal born of petulance toward those who fail to toe the post-Zionist line. Indeed, philosemitism may only be said to be anti-Jewish in the sense that so much of contemporary Jewish culture is geared toward challenging Jewish tradition. When the philosemite looks at Open Hillel or J Street, he sees, to reach for a very Gentile metaphor, a child who wakes up to the most expensive gifts on Christmas morning but complains about the wrapping paper.

Unchosen is a sentimental, proudly anti-intellectual account of Zionism, but it is intensely moral (despite Burchill’s fondness for graphically detailing her early sexual experiences) in its honesty. The book crackles with the electric prose for which Burchill is famed, but her enthusiasm will be off-putting to some. This isn’t a love letter; it’s the signed confession of a stalker.

Still, Jews have been here before. Evangelical Zionists were long eyed with suspicion for fear that they were trying to convert Jews to Christianity, or worse, Republicanism. Now they are largely welcomed by mainstream Jewish organizations that can no longer afford to be so choosy about their allies and anyway find these Sunday friends endearing, with their earnest attempts at Hebrew and their insistence on saying Judea and Samaria rather than the “West Bank.”

Mainstream Jewry will come to love post-Christian Zionists, too, whether they come to resemble the outrageous Burchill or the LGBT community, another overlooked source of support for Israel. It’s hard to be loved, especially when you find it hard to love yourself, but don’t expect the philosemites to give up their courtship anytime soon.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © Lawrie Cate by Creative Commons 2.0.

Tricia Marwick’s kindness shows the human side of politics

The Australian Parliament is the most majestic prison in the world.

Thirty-two hectares and A$1bn worth of isolation, Parliament House in Canberra is built into a hill in the Australian Capital Territory far away from the electorates most MPs represent. The complex operates like a city within a city, remote from the rest of the capital as much as from the rest of the country.

Members of the House of Representatives and senators spend all day with their colleagues, debating, voting, eating, talking, and socialising with each other. In the weeks when the Parliament is sitting, members see much more of their colleagues than they do of their families for days on end and have to fly thousands of miles to get back home at the weekend.

This voluntary confinement forges a kinship between members, even the most fearsome political rivals, that can probably only be understood by legislators in countries as vast in geographic spread as Australia. It makes bonds stronger, betrayals crueler, and grudges familial but just as it can bring out the worst in people, it can also inspire iron-cast loyalties and sincere acts of kindness and compassion. Former House of Representatives speaker Anna Burke wasn’t far wrong when she described the environment as “boarding school on steroids”. It is the other great Australian loneliness.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd captured a sense of this fraternity in his resignation speech to Parliament in 2013. Reflecting on the sacrifices made and the immense strains placed on family life, he counselled new MPs: “Be gentle with each other.”

I was reminded of this when I read a story in this morning’s Courier about Scottish Parliament presiding officer Tricia Marwick and the Scottish Labour MP Lindsay Roy. Mr Roy announced earlier this week that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Ms Marwick revealed that her political rival Mr Roy had been a source of strength and support to her during her own battle against bowel cancer in 2013. The Mid Fife and Glenrothes MSP, who was elected for the SNP but is now neutral in her official role, kept tight-lipped about how serious her condition was at the time.

But she told the Glenrothes and Central Fife MP and Labour man Mr Roy.

She told the Courier’s Michael Alexander: “Lindsay was one of the very few people I let know just how ill I was and he gave me his support and help as we planned and then won the campaign. I am proud to call him my friend. He was there for me when I was ill and I hope I can give him the same support now.”

She added: “It has been a relationship of mutual respect and our determination that, regardless of any political differences, our constituents always come first.

“This was best illustrated by our joint campaign to ensure the out-of-hours service in Glenrothes was retained, despite the best efforts of Fife Health Board to close it.

“I suspect that both Lindsay and I will look back on that campaign as the best thing we ever achieved in our political careers.”

(That is what I love about Tricia Marwick. She is the first woman elected presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament and chaired parliamentary debates on an historic independence referendum but she considers her greatest political achievement a fight for better GP services for her constituents. You can’t buy class like that.)

It might come as a surprise that people from opposite sides of the political divide could be such close friends, supporting each other through times when even life-long friends can withdraw into impotent silence, but it really shouldn’t. For all their political and philosophical differences, most politicians go into public life to do good. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they don’t try hard enough. Some become cynical or lazy and just enjoy the trappings of office, clinging to power for its own sake.

But these people are few in number, much fewer than the general public imagines. The expenses scandal was an inexcusable betrayal of trust and its lasting legacy is a caricature of the average MP as a self-motivated expenses-swindler. All the same. In it for themselves. Hand in the till.

This isn’t merely untrue, it is poisonous to popular engagement in the democratic process. It is why we have lost the human dimension from our politics.

Their priorities may be different and their goals might seem abnormal, but MPs and MSPs are not terribly different from the rest of us. They fight with their spouses, snap at their children, and bicker with their neighbours. Their doormats serve up the same bills every morning, their insurance company stiffs them just as readily, and they too worry about how to pay the mortgage, the car, and the holiday all in the one month. They fall in love, have affairs, get sick, and die. They succeed and they fail. They rise to the moment and let themselves down. They can be good people and awful people.

Jim Murphy is not the one-dimensional Labour cyborg of cybernat mythology and Alex Salmond isn’t an ever-looping Braveheart Vine. They each have many different, often contrasting, sometimes contradictory aspects and capacities, as do most people.

They are also, to be sure, people driven by ambition to undergo intense criticism and scrutiny of their public and private lives. That’s not normal but do we really want people leading our country who lack ambition?

Politicians are increasingly damned for failing to connect with the electorate, for being out-of-touch or not understanding the lives of ordinary people. I wouldn’t disagree with any of this. But understanding cuts both ways.

That’s not to call for a return to the age of deference or to abandon the great British tradition of scepticism about politicians and their grand ideas about improving us all.

But we can look to the example set by people like Tricia Marwick and Lindsay Roy and consider the words of Kevin Rudd. Politicians should be kind to each other and we should be a little kinder to them.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Queen’s University by Creative Commons 2.0.

Trident gambit tempts SNP away from the centre ground

Progressive parties win elections by promising to make things better, conservative parties by saying things used to be better and can be once again.

Fittingly for a party that’s not quite left and not quite right, the SNP is trying to have it both ways.

The Nationalists’ pitch to the voters ahead of May’s general election is that they alone will stand up for Scotland and create a more prosperous economy and a fairer society.

And they will do this not by harking back to their own past but to Labour’s. The once-great Labour Party, this narrative goes, has lost its way and perhaps even its soul. This began under Blair, was confirmed by Iraq, but the betrayal turned ostentatious in Labour’s referendum alliance with the Conservatives. Here is a party so obsessed with courting the votes of Middle England and maintaining the Union, it will jettison any and all principles that get in the way.

For austerity and welfare reforms. Against free school meals and home rule for Scotland. This isn’t your father’s Labour Party.

This is a curious political mugging in that the SNP is stealing Labour’s old clothes but not actually wearing them. The Nationalists lament Labour’s rightwards drift away from sacred principles but show no eagerness to champion these values themselves. You will search in vain for SNP pledges to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy, repeal secondary picketing laws, or reintroduce prices and incomes policies. It is still unclear where the SNP stands on a 50% tax rate for those earning over £150,000. We may be some ways off common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

One matter on which the Nationalists do echo Old Labour is defence, where the party borders on pacifist, and in particular in its opposition to the nuclear deterrent. SNP MPs made Trident the subject of an opposition day debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday. The object was to embarrass Scottish Labour, many of whose MPs boycotted the debate in favour of a Westminster Hall session on the crisis-hit oil and gas industry.

The SNP calculates that the nuclear issue can be used as a wedge between new Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, a retentionist, and the Labour faithful, where there is more sympathy for scrapping the programme. It comes amidst UK Government moves to replace the submarine-based system with a new generation of nuclear warheads. The “main gate” decision has been kicked into the long grass only because the two coalition parties can’t agree on what any replacement should look like.

But while some Labour voters are hostile to Trident, there are many who view the nuclear deterrent as a necessary evil. Labour has long been a multilateralist party and still bears the scars from its flirtation with unilateralism, a term synonymous for the current generation of Labour politicians with Michael Foot, defeat, and impotent rage at Thatcherism.

The more excitable amongst the Nationalist ranks charge – and, pray for Nicola Sturgeon, quite a few of them truly believe — that Labour and Mr Murphy are enthusiasts of nuclear arms. Love ‘em, they do. Can’t beat a bit of nuclear annihilation. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! This confusion of moderate social democrats with the cast of Dr Strangelove is asinine but more importantly it fails to grasp the political tension at the heart of the Labour Party, which is often mistaken for left-versus-right but is actually instinct-versus-realism.

Labour people instinctively abhor weapons of mass destruction – and let’s not pretend Trident is anything other than a delivery system for the wholesale incineration of human life – for the same reasons most people do but also for distinctively Labour reasons of economic priorities and scepticism about military power.

But Labour people are, on the whole, not pacifists and are realistic about the importance of deterrence in a hostile world and the international clout nuclear weapons lend. Just as important, they recognise that the voters are divided on the matter but, when pushed, aren’t keen on putting their hands up and hoping the North Koreans follow suit.

A Panelbase poll for Wings over Scotland, a site that is doing more than most to understand why the last referendum was lost and how the next one can be won, illustrated the split in public opinion with 44% of Scots agreeing with a continuing nuclear deterrent against 36% opposing it. Even amongst SNP voters, almost four in ten back nuclear weapons in principle. This echoes earlier polling showing public support, if not approval, for Trident.

As Stuart Campbell notes glumly: “The uncharitable but logical conclusion from the findings is that Scots are barely any less militaristic than people in the rest of the UK, but they don’t like having Trident in their own back yard.”

I would quibble only with “militaristic”. When it comes to Trident, Scots are hard-headed, not hard-hearted and it is this wary realism that guides Labour’s policy.

Which is why Trident was an odd topic choice for yesterday’s debate. With less than four months to go until a general election, the SNP is positioning itself against public opinion on an issue that ranks low on the list of most voters’ priorities. This looks like a core-vote strategy to gin up The 45 — especially the ex- and soon-to-be-ex-Labourites — and convince the hard-left not to waste their votes on the Greens or the Socialists.

I say “looks like” because I can’t believe the SNP would intentionally surrender the centre ground this close to polling day. It may be that Trident is so offensive to them, so totemic of the British state and its boundless arrogance, that they just can’t help themselves. But it’s bad politics and tells middle-of-the-road voters that the SNP does not share their priorities.

Jim Murphy and Ed Balls spent Tuesday, as did other Labour MPs, focussing on jobs in the energy sector amid plummeting oil prices. This was a smart move and will have painted a vivid contrast in the minds of voters. The Nationalists are far ahead in the opinion polls and given the ineptitude of Scottish Labour over the last few years they deserve to be. The SNP got to this position by governing from the centre and crafting their policies forensically to the needs and aspirations of Middle Scotland. They need to bear that in mind in the general election campaign. They may have an overwhelming poll lead but as Labour learned painfully in 2011 poll leads are easily squandered.

Mr Murphy had a good day yesterday. He can’t be allowed many more.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © JohnED76 by Creative Commons 2.0.

Scotland poised to hold UK’s future in its hands once again

“You campaign in poetry,” said the late Mario Cuomo. “You govern in prose.”

The SNP campaigns with a baseball bat, relentlessly pummeling the Labour Party, now bloodied and on the floor.

Wednesday’s Ipsos-MORI poll for STV saunters over to the battered party and gives it another kick in the ribs. The telephone survey, conducted amongst 1001 over-18s between January 12 and 19, gives the Nationalists a 28% lead over Labour. The SNP’s lead alone is bigger than the share of people planning to vote Labour, which sits at 24%. The Conservatives are on 12%, and the Greens and Liberal Democrats on four percent apiece. My colleague Cara Sulieman has more details here.

If these numbers were replicated in a Scotland-wide swing on May 7, the SNP would win 55 seats, Labour four, and the Tories and Lib Dems would be wiped out. Willie Bain (Glasgow North East), Ian Davidson (Glasgow South West), Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston, and Bellshill), and whomever Labour selects to replace Gordon Brown in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath would be the only Labour MPs in Scotland.

Anyone who suggested such an outcome six months ago would have been sectioned or strongly advised to lay off the booze. But we now have a series of polls showing the same trend. So, on the face of it, this research doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know before. The SNP is going to make huge gains in May, at the expense of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. It would be more illuminating to find out why these new voters have flocked to the SNP, what they expect of it, and what are the red lines the Nationalists must heed to retain their support.

Part of that support no doubt comes from the personal popularity of the party’s leader. Nicola Sturgeon continues to enjoy poll ratings comparable to the Soviet-era chair of an east European communist party. Sixty-nine percent of voters approve of her performance as First Minister and her net satisfaction rate is +49. This is despite the oil crisis and strengthens my theory that Ms Sturgeon could get caught on camera throttling a three-legged puppy called Mr Snuffles and still be cheered through the streets by an adoring public.

But that alone does not do justice to public opinion. Importantly, the SNP is viewed as a safe pair of hands in government and has carefully crafted a reputation as a moderate party that won’t rock the boat on anything save independence. In this endeavour, it has been generously assisted by the paucity of talent and ambition within Scottish Labour and by that party’s seeming lack of anything to say to the voters.

The SNP may be wearisomely populist at times. It may be New Labour with softer edges. But even its staunchest critics cannot dispute that it has earned its popularity with the voters through canny calculation, iron-tight discipline, and old-fashioned hard work — all the while out-flanking, out-strategising, and out-classing a hapless opposition.

Can you tell there’s a ‘but’ coming?

But… the party is not home and dry and cannot recline in complacency between now and May. Despite highly encouraging poll numbers, Nationalists have a mighty challenge ahead of them in smashing Labour’s stonking majorities in the west and central belt.

Today’s poll, like those before it, fails to capture this reality. One of the seats that would supposedly go in the yellow wave forecast by Ipsos-MORI is Jim Murphy’s own constituency. For anyone who has never visited East Renfrewshire — it’s really the only reason to leave Glasgow — there is more chance of Murdo Fraser getting gay married to Abu Hamza in a Las Vegas Elvis chapel than there is of the leafy suburbs of Giffnock, Newton Mearns, and Whitecraigs electing a Nationalist MP.

So the SNP has a tricky balancing act to perform. It must play up these polls to excite its grassroots and convince SNP-leaners that now is the time to break with Labour but it also has to caveat predictions of 55 seats with reminders of Labour’s huge majorities. If voters send, say, 25 Nationalist MPs to Westminster, that would be a remarkable victory but set against public expectations of twice that number, it would look like a modest achievement at best.

And what of Scottish Labour (which still exists at time of writing)?

Voters appear cool on its new leader. Thirty-four percent are satisfied with the job Jim Murphy is doing while 38% are dissatisfied. Twenty-eight percent didn’t have an opinion, which should really be a barrier to participation in an opinion poll. Forty-eight percent say his election as Scottish Labour leader makes no difference to their voting intention in May, while 28% say it makes them less inclined to back Labour and another 20% more inclined.

He’s only five minutes in the door so the value of these numbers is questionable. Nonetheless, the general election is less than four months away. He needs to start making more of an impact.

Mr Murphy’s job, however, lies beyond 2015; his task is to prise away enough Holyrood seats from the SNP in 2016 to prove that Scottish Labour is still a viable party. Labour’s UK leader, and the man the electorate will be voting on in May, is Ed Miliband and that fact should worry Scottish Labour supporters more than anything else.

Because the real story of the new poll is not the headline figures. It’s the confirmation that Ed Miliband continues to be less popular in Scotland than David Cameron. Lesspopular. Than David Cameron. In Scotland. Twenty-seven percent of Scots are satisfied with the job Cameron is doing — not a bad show in a country that romanticises itself as an outpost of socialist egalitarianism — but the UK Labour leader can manage only 21%. Two-thirds of Scots have a negative view of the Doncaster North MP. Rose West has better polling numbers than that.

Voters like strong leaders, which is why Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon have done so well. Ed Miliband does not look like a leader. He looks like a policy wonk and he still talks like one. And while he may very well emerge with the greatest number of seats in the Commons, it is still impossible to picture him standing outside Number 10 looking solemn and prime ministerial. Go on. Try it. I dare you not to laugh.

The poll also brings bad news for the Tories in the form of another Scottish wipeout, which would be devastating for a party that was hoping to pick up a second seat this time around. If it does happen — and I doubt it — leader Ruth Davidson might have to call Mr Fraser back early from his Las Vegas honeymoon to revive his idea of founding a new centre-right party in Scotland.

As for the Liberal Democrats, it would be improper to intrude on private grief. (Given these numbers, very private indeed.)

What does all this mean for the overall outcome of the general election in that small part of the UK called Not Scotland?

The SNP, as Bernard Ponsonby notes, could very well hold the balance of power in the next Parliament. It would hope to use this leverage to extract more powers for the Scottish Parliament and the scrapping of Trident in exchange for confidence and supply for a minority Labour government.

Truth be told, the possibility seems remote at this time. Even under the left-leaning Mr Miliband, the Labour Party is unlikely to adopt a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. It would immediately end Labour’s credibility as a party of the centre and downgrade the UK to the status of a charming but strategically irrelevant tourist destination. Nor are English voters likely to stomach a minority Miliband administration foisted upon them by Scottish Nationalists, the party having U-turned on its self-denying ordinance against voting on English-only matters.

This could be a blessing in disguise. The SNP prospers as a populist party and the price of any pact at Westminster would include compromising cherished beliefs. Nicola Sturgeon would have to trade-off, cut deals, and make alliances, all in the constant glare of 24-hour news and an intensive media scrutiny to which her party is unaccustomed. The revelation that it is but flesh would put a significant dent in the SNP’s popularity and at a time when the country could be heading to a second general election.

Nonetheless, this is all so much supposition. Neither you nor I knows what will happen in the coming months. However, we do know this: Scotland 2015 will be the hardest-fought, closest-run, and most exciting general election of most of our lifetimes. For the second time in nine months, the fate of the UK could be in the hands of Scotland.

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