Alex Salmond takes STV behind the scenes of his week* (*Not really)

In the week that Alex Salmond confessed he sometimes forgets he is no longer First Minister and the Sunday Herald revealed the SNP will continue to provide its former leader with a chauffeur-driven car, STV publishes the following excerpts from Mr Salmond’s diaries, with an introduction by the man himself.*

Greetings, fellow sovereign Scots!

You will have been wondering where I’ve gone now that I feature only in every other item on the TV news. Well, I’ve been resting since leading the Yes campaign to a moral victory in the referendum. Thankfully the negotiations for the division of moral assets haven’t been quite so taxing.

Besides, it’s hard work being First Minister, spiritual leader to The 45, and the man responsible for holding Westminster’s feet to the fire. 2015 is set to be another exciting year for the SNP under my ongoing leadership.

It’s important to get our message out – and get around the hated forces of MSM vowery. So I decided to take my column from the letters page of The Herald to the Press and Journal. The money’s better and I no longer have to write in green ink.

I can’t think of a better way of reaching out to Yes voters who have never voted SNP than by writing for a newspaper that serves one of the most heavily No-voting parts of the country. Everyone I asked agrees with me. (I had to consult random people in the street since all my special advisers have mysteriously gone missing. Come to think of it, it’s been a while since a civil servant brought me something to sign.)

But I want to spread the message of independence home rule even further, so I have agreed to let our friends at YesTV publish my diary for the week. This isn’t intended as a snub to those lying b******s at the BBC I hate them so so so much the Unionist quisling traitors.

It’s okay. I’m over it now.

MONDAY

I find myself settling back into a routine now the referendum is over for a generation or until May. I get up at 6am, turn on BBC Radio “Scotland” and take out my stopwatch to count the number of seconds the weather forecaster gives to Glasgow, Dundee, North Lanarkshire, and West Dunbartonshire. As usual, more time is given to the 28 other local authorities. I WONDER WHY?!?!?!

David Torrance is introduced down the line. No doubt those little gauleiters at GMS have booked him just to wind me up. Well, it won’t get to me. Before I stick my fingers in my ears and sing Freedom Come-All-Ye to block out the Westminster lies, I hear him say he is writing a “biography of the First Minister”. He’s already written one! Then he claims the book is about Nicola. Typical inconsistency from this Unionist lackey, whom I don’t even know.

Speaking of Nicola, she’s mentioned something about me still having a car and a driver despite our “change in roles”. I have no idea what she’s talking about. Apparently that Labour apparatchik Paul Hutcheon is going to write about it. The Sunday Herald must be desperate for copy if they think the First Minister having a driver is a story.

TUESDAY

I have to wait 20 minutes for my car to arrive at Bute House this morning. When he finally shows up, my new driver says he hadn’t expected to be picking me up from the First Minister’s official residence. Where else would I be?! I am the First Minister, after all!

Not too keen on this new driver, Jeffrey. I notice a copy of the D***y R****d on the seat beside him. Is he MI5?

We get to talking about politics during the drive. “I am fighting for a fair, egalitarian, social democratic Scotland,” I tell my chauffeur.

“I’ve always voted Labour,” he confesses, his cultural cringe visible in the rear-view mirror.

“There’s no need to apologise,” I reassure the pitiful self-hater. “Just make sure you vote SNP in May.”

“Why?” he asks, as if it wasn’t blindingly obvious.

“To keep the Tories out,” I explain calmly. “They are right-wing, want to cut taxes for the rich, and put a cap on benefits.”

“Why can’t I just vote Labour to do that?”

“Because they are right-wing, want to cut taxes for the rich, and put a cap on benefits. They are Red Tories.”

“Well, what will the SNP do with all the extra seats it wins at Westminster?”

“Support a minority Labour government, of course.”

“But why?”

“Because we’re right-wing, want to cut taxes for the rich, and put a cap on benefits. It’s really very simple.”

He just doesn’t get it. I fear it’s too late for Jeffrey. He’s already been lost to MSM brainwashing.

Off to a Scottish Government Cabinet meeting. Roseanna gives me a funny look as if I’m not supposed to be there and even gasps when I sit down in my regular seat. I guess she still hasn’t got over the 2004 leadership race. Oddly enough, Nicola gives me the exact same look when she walks in, before smiling shallowly and sitting down next to me. She’s probably worried about this book Tory Boy Torrance is writing about her. She’ll have to get used to this kind of pressure if she’s ever going to be First Minister.

Cabinet is dominated by talk of an “oil crisis”. More scaremongering from that Better Together plant Fergus Ewing. I try to point out that oil is trading at $113 a barrel and even showed him proof — the line in the White Paper where I say just that. He refuses to listen to reason, that man. I just know Severin Carrell is behind all this.

I tell Cabinet: “I will go on defending Scotland’s sovereign right to elect me to run stuff. The rocks will melt wi’ the sun before I allow them to impose tuition fees in Scotland. The rocks will melt wi’ the sun before I allow them to get away with The Vow. The rocks will melt wi’ the sun before I get a new Burns line.”

I had to write that bit myself. My speechwriter has also gone AWOL. Thank goodness I still have my car and a driver, even if he is probably a front man for Torcuil Crichton.

WEDNESDAY

NASDAQ puts the value of oil down to $45 a barrel. If Torrance thinks this will get to me, he’s got another thing coming.

I notice Jeffrey is again reading The Paper That Shall Not Be Named Because It Sold Our Country Down The River Shame On It For All Eternity (TPTSNBNBISOCDTRSOIFAE for short) but I’ve come armed with a copy of The National to give him.

“You’ll enjoy this much more, Jeffrey,” I say. “The National is the fairest newspaper in Scotland. It gives equal space to both sides: People who think the SNP is the only party that stands up for Scotland and people who think Jim Murphy is a lizard controlled by the Rothschilds.”

“My name’s not actually Jeffrey. It’s Donald.”

“But Donald’s a Scottish name. You read the Daily Record.”

“What? I don’t under– Look, I’m Scottish,” he protests.

“Of course you are,” I say, soothingly. He can’t remember his real name, I note to myself. Just like any MI5 agent who’s had to assume a false identity.

Car journeys are taking longer since I instructed Jeffrey to avoid all routes that pass by branches of Asda, John Lewis, or Standard Life. And they thought there’d be no day of reckoning! We still have to pass The Scotsman building but I put my hand against the car window and tilt my head so the sign reads “The          man”. That’ll show Kenny Farquaharson.

Still, the drive gives me time to read Derek Bateman and make sure I haven’t missed anything to be offended by on BBC Scotland today. Turns out I’m good.

THURSDAY

I head to the Scottish Parliament for First Minister’s Questions and get into the chamber to find Nicola sitting in my seat. Bless, she’s ambitious but she’s got a few more years to wait until I stand down.

Something odd happens. The presiding officer asks for questions to the First Minister but doesn’t call on me to answer them. Instead, Nicola keeps jumping up and taking question after question. I don’t know what’s got into Tricia Marwick the past few weeks. Strange.

Well, at least I don’t have to listen to that insufferable Kezia Dugdale. She’s referred to me as the “former First Minister” more than once now. Totally out of touch with the reality of life in Scotland. Ruth Davidson’s even worse. I hate Tories. That’s why I governed with their support for four years, just to show my strong moral objection to them.

FRIDAY

I wake up to a bizarre email from Nicola asking when I plan to move out of Bute House. Is she considering a leadership coup?

Unionist astroturf operation Wings over Scotland has published a “poll” claiming more Scots want to keep Trident than get rid of it. More propaganda from this Murphyite agent provocateur. The sovereign will of the people of Scotland is to remove nuclear weapons from Faslane. I know this because I’ve said it many times. Strongly suspect Wings is in league with Torrance. After all, this is the same man who said my currency plan would be a vote loser! Hah!

I love Scotland. In fact, I love it so much that I’d rather be in London. But that’s just so I can remind them all how valuable our oil continues to be to their economy.

So I jump in my car. “To Westminster, Jeffrey,” I direct, “where everyone will be dead keen to go into coalition with me after I just spent three years calling them all heartless b******s with their collective jackboot stamped upon the neck of Scotland.”

“But you haven’t won yet Mr—I mean, First Minister,” he says. “And my name really isn’t Jeffrey.”

Jeffrey wants to put Scotland back in its box but he has another thing coming.

“Things can only get better,” I remind him, wisely.

“Wasn’t that Tony Blair’s theme song? I guess the D:Ream shall never die.”

He’s too clever by half, is Jeffrey. I suspect him of being in league with Nick Robinson, Jackie Bird, and John Barrowman.

“Okay, First Minister. Westminster is it. I just need to stop for petrol. It’s so cheap right now.”

I bite my lip. Definitely MI5.

*These really are Alex Salmond’s diary entries. They totally weren’t made up by Stephen Daisley. Nope, no way. He would never do such a thing.

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

Joan McAlpine’s stridency shows disdain for alternative views

A conspiracy operates before our eyes, its devious puppet masters conniving in plain sight.

Their nefarious aim is nothing short of the destruction of parliamentary democracy in Scotland.

If news of these machinations shocks you, you will not be alone.

We are indebted to Joan McAlpine for alerting us to the dastardly plot. The SNP MSP and Daily Record columnist – she must be staying to ensure The Vow is kept – used her column in Wednesday’s paper to warn readers about a cabal working against Scotland’s parliament.

Their fiendish scheme… wait for it… is to secure more powers for Scottish local authorities.

It’s not exactly the Cambridge Five, is it?

Nonetheless, Ms McAlpine objects to the attempt to hand some powers held by the Scottish Parliament to councils, which would allow more decisions to be taken locally and in line with the specific needs of each area instead of being imposed from Edinburgh. Or, to put it another way: Decisions on West Dunbartonshire’s future are best taken by those who care the most about West Dunbartonshire, the people who live and work there.

However, Ms McAlpine sees more sinister motives at work:

“The anti-SNP parties want to ‘devolve power from Holyrood’ and had this written into the Smith Commission. They do this to bring down our parliament – because it is popular and the vast majority of Scots want it to have greater powers.”

Localism of one form or another commands support across the political spectrum, from the Tories through to the Greens. The idea of Murdo Fraser and Patrick Harvie colluding to bring down Scottish democracy via bin collection policy might sound like a particularly duff episode of Homeland but the prospect worries Ms McAlpine all the same.

Needless to say, the blame lies largely with the perfidious Labour Party. Murphy himself, assisted by that most disloyal traitor the thane of Cosla, has begun a dismal conflict.

“Labour governments from 1997 to 2007,” she writes, “allowed councils to hike bills by 60%. That’s not the local democracy communities are crying out for.”

The wrong kind of democracy. Even those of us who admire Ms McAlpine’s flair as a writer could never have predicted she would one day re-write Bertolt Brecht: “Would it not be easier/ In that case for the government/ To dissolve the people/ And elect another?”

Ultimately, the plotters’ aim is not to enhance democracy: “They want to channel money back to their cronies. That’s not empowerment. It’s empire building.”

We should perhaps have guessed where things were going from the opening sentence of the column: “Who do you trust more, your local council or the Scottish Parliament?” During the referendum, Ms McAlpine’s mentor Alex Salmond told us it was “Team Scotland” versus “Team Westminster”. Now it’s Team Holyrood against the rest of the country.

This is a perfect illustration of why we need a re-examination of Scotland’s political institutions to improve on the flaws of the system put in place by devolution. The failure to disperse power widely enough – in councils or a second chamber of parliament – leaves Scotland lacking the kind of checks and balances that curb executive power and provide for responsible, pluralistic government.

That is a particular challenge when faced with a politician who appears to question the legitimacy of any opposition. Ms McAlpine condemns those who seek a more effective balance of powers between central and local government as “anti-SNP” — she previously branded these parties “anti-Scottish”; I’m not sure she sees a distinction – and in doing so indicates she has no desire to participate in a substantive debate.

It is true, as she highlights, that more people turn out to vote in Scottish Parliament elections than in council elections. Has the MSP considered that this might be because local authorities are so politically anaemic it hardly seems worth the effort? Councils can certainly govern incompetently and ineffectively but so too can central governments. That is no reason for depriving the latter of powers. If anything it is cause to devolve more powers to local government to raise the stakes and improve the quality of policy and policymakers.

Perhaps none of this should surprise us. The SNP has a liberal streak a centimetre long. Whether it’s prosecuting people for singing unpalatable songs at football matches or assigning state guardians for every child or trying to kill off the ancient safeguard of corroboration, the Nationalists are often found wanting on individual and civil liberties. Ms McAlpine is a symbol of that strain of authoritarianism. Why, one might ask in McAlpinean terms, does she not trust Scots with freedom and responsibility? Why are our political betters at Holyrood the only people who can make smart decisions?

The SNP should learn the lessons of the Labour period of Scottish politics, where a similar enthusiasm for centralisation inhibited local democracy and gave rise to many of the problems that still beset councils. If Labour has undergone a change in heart, the SNP should welcome it: A Labour Party that believes in wider distribution of power would have trouble squaring this new principle with support for the Union as it is currently structured.

None of these nuances is reflected in Ms McAlpine’s column. That’s because she is the Ann Coulter of Scottish Nationalism, firing wild invective at opponents and casually questioning the patriotism of those who disagree with her. She writes with her fists and loves word-bombs like “toffs”, “bosses”, and “cronies”. I once wrote that she speaks “like a suddenly radicalised Catherine Cookson character” but that fails to capture her stridency and disdain for alternative points of view. In fact, she appears to inhabit her own world of political reasoning.

It’s a magical place, Joanland, where everything is black and white and everyone either good (SNP) or evil (everyone else). There are no complex problems, only Labour lies and Unionist deceptions, and such challenges as exist all have one easy answer: independence. In Joanland, no one is unduly burdened by doubt. It is the land that nuance forgot.

Nevertheless, the calls for Ms McAlpine to apologise are misjudged, as is the demand that Nicola Sturgeon distance herself from the comments – the latter coming from the Scottish Greens, who are allowed to speak for themselves again now the referendum is over. It’s easy politics but not good politics. There is still far too much mediocrity on the Holyrood benches and so when a colourful character comes along – one who thinks outside the box, or thinks at all – we should be wary of jumping on their every outré pronouncement. At least with Ms McAlpine there’s a mind at work, even if it’s a closed one.

On Wednesday, Scottish Labour MP Frank Roy tweeted: “BP are announcing job losses tomorrow. How can that be? Swinney said oil boom was on the way?”

I only saw the post because 45ers were tweeting that Roy was “gloating” about North Sea job losses. That’s fairly predictable (cybernats gonna cybernat) but as I read and re-read the tweet, it did seem a tad glib. I was going to tweet as much but then I stopped. Frank Roy is a former Ravenscraig steelworker who was amongst those made redundant when the factory was closed in 1992. He knows about job losses; I’m just some pontificating commentator.

In an age when the political class is collectively charged with inauthenticity and most MPs accused of never having held a “real job”, we need more people like him in politics and we should be encouraging these politicians in particular to use social media to connect directly with voters.

So the problem with Ms McAlpine’s column isn’t that she’s an elected representative; it’s that her jeremiad is illogical and objectionable in its contempt for democracy. She’s a talented polemicist and knows how to write tabloid better than some London red-top columnists who have become household names on much less ability. (In an earlier journalistic incarnation, she was also responsible for the much-missed Sunday Times Ecosse section, the most readable and entertaining newspaper supplement in Scotland for the bulk of its 15 years.) She could be a great asset to an SNP eager to win over what remains of Labour Scotland; no doubt she sees that as her purpose in writing for the Record.

But her impassioned rhetoric is undercut by an internal contradiction: She’s a romantic radical in a party of the managerial centre. That’s why her tone must always be strident, her tenor outraged, and her ideological ambitions frustrated. It makes her the sort of belligerent idealist who condemns more democracy as an attack on democracy.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image by Tom Donald and in the public domain

Is Jim Murphy trolling or is he really not a Unionist?

There is a chance — distant, I grant you — that Jim Murphy only stood for Scottish Labour leader so he could troll the cybernats.

Every time he skooshes open a can of Irn-Bru or talks about football or jogs past STV in his Scotland top (hey there, handsome), Twitter is soon ablaze with 45ers snarking, taunting, memeing, or employing (sometimes creative) forms of what my granny used to call “language”.

(Have you noticed that Yes people swear so much more innovatively than Naysayers? Labour and Tory types are straightforward F-bombers; Nationalists neologise and compound-adjectivise profanity into a potty-mouthed poetry.)

So far in his short tenure as Scottish Labour leader, Mr Murphy has riled his opponents by pledging to rewrite Scottish Labour’s constitution to define it as a “patriotic party”, appointing Blairite ultra and Nat-basher John McTernan as his chief of staff, announcing a push to “reach out” to Yes voters, flying to Aberdeen to meet oil industry figures as the SNP government watched in horror at the plummeting oil price, and picking a fortuitous mansion tax fight with English colleagues to fund 1000 extra nurses above and beyond however many the Scottish Government hires.

The ability to get under the skin of political opponents is an unjustly overlooked skill. Alex Salmond has it, so did Harold Wilson, and it served Barack Obama well in his first term.

Paul Keating, the former Australian prime minister, was a world-class riler who could enrage the opposition with a few carefully chosen words and smile beatifically as his rivals shouted and screamed for the TV cameras. When his Liberal challenger John Hewson asked why Keating wouldn’t call an early election, the Sydney bruiser flashed his shark grin: “Mate, I wanna do you slowly”.

Deployed judiciously, this skill could help Mr Murphy do mischief to a dominant but hairtrigger-sensitive SNP. Governments riled start to make mistakes.

The latest occasion for Murphysteria is the Labour chief’s announcement that he is not, after all, a Unionist.

During a lunch with journalists, Mr Murphy sought to distance himself further from the referendum and the electoral poison it has pumped into certain parts of the body politic.

According to the Daily Record’s David Clegg, Mr Murphy said: “I have never been a Unionist. It’s never been my political tradition. As a family of Irish Catholic immigrants we’re not Unionists. I grew up in a family of trade-unionists, but we’re not political Unionists.”

While there had been a “temporary alignment” during the referendum in the form of the Better Together campaign, Mr Murphy insisted Labour and the Conservatives represented “two different Unionist traditions”.

He explained: “A Conservative and Unionist tradition inside the Conservative Party and elements of the Liberal Democrats, and you had a trade-unionist and socialist solidarity tradition inside the Labour Party.

“For a moment there was an alignment for different reasons of political culture and history, but that moment is gone.”

In one sense, this is all so much hogwash. Here is one of the saviours of the Union — who braved eggs, insults, and snippy tweets from National Collective to keep the UK together — dismissing the very notion. Jim Murphy is shocked, shocked, to find there’s Unionism going on in this establishment.

In another, more complex sense, Mr Murphy’s non-Unionist support for the Union is not as implausible as it might sound.

The Unionist/Nationalist dichotomy is an ultimately misleading shorthand that occludes the nuances in philosophy, instinct, and identification on both sides. By what metric is Patrick Harvie or Colin Fox a “Nationalist” — those quotation marks almost write themselves around the word — and under what curious rubric is George Galloway or Neil Findlay an ideologue of Unionism?

I don’t know whether Mr Murphy is a Unionist or not but I can believe that he is sincerely uncomfortable with the label. How could an uber-modernising New Labour type believe in anything quite so old and fusty as the Union? How likely is it that a Scottish Catholic of Irish descent would identify with a political and historical construct associated with British imperialism? This is especially true of Labour left-wingers, although no one would confuse Mr Murphy for a socialist. (A Labour-historied colleague quipped: “I can buy Jim not being a Unionist; it’s the suggestion that he’s a trade unionist that cracks me up.”)

This is just as true of some Yes campaigners, whose support for independence was not located in any substantive philosophy of “Nationalism” but rather on a pragmatic calculation that an independent Scotland would be more conducive to socialism, egalitarianism, or republicanism. This approach was embodied by the Radical Independence Campaign and even Yes Scotland chairman Dennis Canavan.

So too were there politicians on the No side who harboured no affection for the Union or its symbolism but who determined that Scotland’s continuing participation in an economy of 65 million made more sense than going off on its own with just five million. For these non-Unionists for the Union, their vote was against independence and its perceived risks, not necessarily an endorsement of a political system which they deem to be flawed. If they felt any sentiment towards the Union it was for a particular moment — the Liberal reforms, World War II, the 1945 Labour government — rather than the holistic political system.

Part of the problem is the polarisation of the two constitutional positions so that opposing views have come to be seen as character flaws and not genuine differences of opinion. The media have to take some of the blame for this. All too often, we framed the debate as a zero sum showdown between Unionists and Nationalists. There isn’t much scope for shades of grey in four-minute one-plus-twos. Some Labour politicians conceded privately during the referendum that they were uncomfortable with the Unionist label. It might have made more sense to be public about that disquiet, even if it provoked some headlines about divisions in the No camp.

Of course, this is another reason why federalism, not the status quo or last-minute vows, should have been at the heart of the No message. Had independence opponents put forward an alternative to the current constitutional arrangements, one that reflected their professed progressive values, they wouldn’t have to be fighting a rear-guard semantic action four months after the referendum.

Mr Murphy’s rebranding exercise is necessary to challenge the suspicion that Scottish Labour is a London-centric party and he a London-centric politician, existing to represent Westminster to Scotland rather than the other way around. Necessary, but not sufficient. If he is a non-Unionist who believes in the UK as a platform for political and social progress, Mr Murphy has to craft a more convincing narrative of what that looks like. Hollow soundbites about “pooling and sharing resources” aren’t going to cut it anymore, if they ever did.

Tactics and strategy can get you far in politics but only so far. You also need policies, credibility, and a story to tell. The SNP has all three; Scottish Labour has none. But it has a leader, its opponents’ contempt, and the media’s low expectations. It’s a start — but that’s all.

Originally published on STV News.

What have we learned from the first Ashcroft poll of 2015?

We know nothing, those of us who write and talk about politics for a living.

That is, of course, an overstatement but it speaks to a problem particular to the 2015 general election.

Columnists, pundits, and the professionally opinionated – sometimes we call ourselves “analysts” to lend an air of science to our prognostications; just look at the headline on this piece – are beginning to churn out daily commentary on May’s vote.

But, unlike recent electoral history, there are too many variables in this election to predict the outcome with any certainty.

We don’t know who is going to win. We don’t even know if anyone will win, or if there will be a great pile-up of minority major parties and minor parties suddenly swelled.

We don’t know if Ukip will drain away votes from the Tory right or to what extent the SNP will tempt Labour’s Scottish heartlands. We can’t tell how much damage the Greens will do to Ed Miliband’s party in North London and the university towns or whether Welsh voters will use the general election to punish the devolved Labour administration for the ongoing NHS crisis.

We have no idea if the Liberal Democrats will be wiped out or merely knocked for six, though we can say with some surety that they are in for a kicking.

And let’s not even raise the issue of Northern Ireland.

So what do we know? The mainstream parties are unpopular – hated, even – and smaller, populist and nationalist outfits are profiting from that disillusionment. Voters have not necessarily lurched away from the centre ground but those who are so minded now have options outwith the broad political, economic and cultural consensus.

Socialism and cultural conservatism might be anachronisms to most voters but in the Greens and Ukip, respectively and in very different senses, there are now receptacles for the votes of those uneasy about modernity. The movement for Scottish independence may have been frustrated at the polls but the SNP offers true believers an attractive cause, a permanent revolution infinitely more appealing than a soul-searching and uninspiring Labour Party.

The rest, however, is guesswork. That guesswork is helped by opinion polling and the latest research from Lord Ashcroft, published on Monday, gives us the opportunity to indulge in a little more.

So, heeding the caveats listed above, here are a few interpretations of the new numbers.

Labour could be in trouble

The first Ashcroft National Poll (ANP) of 2015 puts the Conservatives ahead of Labour by six points (34% to 28%), a turnaround on recent polling which has tended to give a lead to Ed Miliband’s opposition.

This is of course just one poll and Lord Ashcroft notes:

“The ANP is subject to a margin of error of 3% — meaning the Conservative share could be low enough, and the Labour score high enough, for the parties to be tied on 31%. Indeed only the Conservative score, up four points, has moved outside the margin of error since the last ANP in December. Alternatively, we could be seeing the start of a shift in opinion as the choice looms larger at the start of an election year.”

Lord Ashcroft’s caution is well-placed but that “alternatively” carries a lot of weight. Four months out from the May 2010 election, the Conservatives were four points ahead of Labour with Opinium, nine with YouGov, ten with ICM, 13 with Populus, 13 with ComRes, and an outlier 16 with Angus Reid. To be six points behind, even if against a Conservative party which holds only a plurality rather than a majority of seats in the Commons, is not where Team Miliband wants to be.

And not to pile on but consider the gap in motivation. True, more Labour identifiers say they will definitely vote that way than Tories (73% to 62%) but it’s a different picture when we look at certainty to vote. Almost three in every four Tory supporters are certain to vote in May, compared to 65% of people who back Labour. Moreover, Labour sympathisers were twice as likely as Tories to place themselves on the less likely to vote end of the scale.

As the election approaches, voters’ thinking gets sharper

If that makes uncomfortable reading for Labour supporters, factor in this: The latest Ashcroft poll is the first to prompt for Ukip, which means interviewers mentioned Nigel Farage’s party to respondents alongside Labour, the Tories, and the Lib Dems. This might be expected to have delivered a boost to the English nationalist party. To the contrary, however, they are down three points on 16%.

There are many possible reasons for this but one is that voters, with just four months to go, are starting to think more about the election and how they will cast their ballot. Ukip’s populist rhetoric might have been appealing while the election was still an abstract but now that it is getting closer, and Mr Farage is the subject of increased media scrutiny, right-wing Tory identifiers could be beginning to see the election as a straight Tory-Labour fight or Ukip as too unpolished and outside the mainstream.

Still, as Lord Ashcroft wisely counsels, “let us see what future results tell us”.

It’s the economy, stupid Nationalists

Lord Ashcroft adds to the roster of pollsters bearing good news for the SNP. They are not only ahead of Scottish Labour in Westminster voting intentions — twice as many Scots say they will vote SNP as will back Jim Murphy’s party, by 48% to 24%.

Alex Salmond has set home rule rather than independence as the goal for the 2015 general election (whether he consulted the members of the party he no longer leads before coming to this conclusion is unclear). This might help neutralise the independence question amongst voters for whom it remains a barrier to voting SNP.

But the Ashcroft poll tells us why the Nationalists would do well to park the constitutional question altogether. The Tory peer’s research asked voters about their personal economic well-being in the wake of the recession. Overall, 23% say the economy is not recovering from the financial crash of 2008. Yet, look at the disparity between Scotland and other parts of the UK. North of the border, 35% report no signs of a recovery, the highest of any region — 12 points higher than even the north of England. In terms of those who say the economy is recovering but that they personally feel no better off, Scotland, on 35%, is closer to the UK average of 39%.

Taken together, seven out of every ten Scots believes the economy still to be in recession or that the recovery has been too weak to benefit them. Across the UK, it’s closer to six in ten. If the SNP wants to realise the opinion polls giving them anywhere between 40 and 50 seats in the Commons, these are the figures they should fix upon. A country where 70% of the voters feel economically disenfranchised is not one in the mood for a constitutional debate (and certainly not months after rejecting the premise of that debate by a ten-point margin in a referendum).

Talk about home rule and devo max can wait. The SNP cannot organise its pitch to voters around the grievances of the 45ers. People who feed their children from food banks don’t care what the Daily Record said or didn’t say several months ago. The party has to put the economy at the centre of everything it says and does for the next four months and if it does so it could reap real rewards.

The Greens have to get out the youth vote

As a long-standing minor party, which at the time of writing is unlikely to be included in any of the national TV debates, the Greens would be doing well to retain their one seat in the House of Commons. But the party is now regularly polling ahead of the Lib Dems — in Scotland, by a margin of two-to-one — and will be expected to produce a decent vote share in May.

One way to achieve this, and perhaps even pick up a second seat, is to concentrate on a demographic that has always been friendlier to the Greens than the population at large. Voters aged between 18 and 34 are twice as likely to vote Green as Lib Dem — 31% to 14%.

Green Party leader in England and Wales Natalie Bennett has spoken before about the potential for wooing the student-skewed populations of several university towns, telling the Guardian in November: “I think there are probably very few Liberal Democrat voters in universities. And that’s true of lecturers and staff as well as students. What we’re offering young people is hope: the idea of a future that works for the common good, that doesn’t see the bankers being allowed to get away with endless fraud, mismanagement and risk-taking at the expense of the rest of us.”

A seat to watch is Norwich South, a Lib Dem/Labour marginal where the Greens picked up 15% of the vote last time. Winning is still a big ask at this point but there is a realistic chance they could come second.

Of course, none of this might happen. All of it might happen. Maybe some of it but not other bits. Don’t ask me, I’m just an “analyst”.

Originally published on STV News

1000 reasons why Jim Murphy’s nurses pledge needs a rethink

At first glimpse, Jim Murphy’s 1000 nurses announcement bears all the hallmarks of canny policy.

It’s bold, makes clear Scottish Labour’s commitment to the NHS, and shifts the focus to the SNP for a counter-offer.

This is not an easy ask for the Nationalists; they do not enjoy access to the kind of resources the British government can lay claim to.

It is a dramatisation of that oft-spouted but little-loved Better Together slogan: We can pool and share resources across the UK.

Here is a policy that would benefit NHS patients in Scotland from the pockets of millionaires from the south east of England. The best of both worlds indeed.

The pledge would be funded, Mr Murphy claims, using the £250m in additional spending due to Scotland after the introduction of a “mansion tax” on properties valued in excess of £2m, which will play a central part in Labour’s 2015 general election manifesto.

Mr Murphy told party supporters in a speech on Monday: “We will support the NHS and nurses and use the money from a UK mansion tax to fund an additional 1000 NHS nurses in Scotland over and above the SNP plans that we inherit.

“So often in politics we hear from voters that politicians are all the same or from commentators that the differences between parties are marginal. But this is a uniquely Labour pledge for a Labour priority.”

Let me reassure Mr Murphy I am not one of those commentators. I don’t think Labour’s policy on nurses is just the same as the SNP’s. I think it’s bizarre.

Why? Because of these nine words: “over and above the SNP plans that we inherit”. That means, Labour is not just promising 1000 extra nurses; it’s pledging a thousandon top of whatever number the Nationalists recruit.

Pete Wishart, Lord help us, made a good point: “What if we pledge a million, trillion godzillian?”

What indeed.

But there are bigger challenges than an SNP government that decides to go on a recruitment drive on the set of Holby City. In these times of scarcity it is more important than ever to spend taxpayers’ money wisely and direct expenditure to where it is most needed and will be most beneficial. Nurses get all the headlines, and the hunkier doctors, but post-procedural social care is where politicians should focus their attention.

Families of Scots stuck in hospital long after their operation but caught in the bureaucracy and funding nexus between the NHS and their local authority would rather see the £250m go to reforming and streamlining this aspect of health and social care.

Then there’s the raw politics of it all. What happens to Mr Murphy’s pledge if Ed MIliband is forced to ditch the “mansion tax” as part of a coalition deal after the election? What if Mr Miliband wins, implements this tax and a few years later an incoming Tory government scraps it? How will the thousand extra nurses be funded?

And if, as Mr Murphy claims, 95% of the revenue will come from the south east of England, why does he suppose that voters there will accept such a big chunk of their change going north of the border?

That’s the problem with substituting political machismo for spending priorities. It always leaves the politician responsible sounding disingenuous and looking ridiculous. Quite why someone as strategically clued-up as Mr Murphy would make such a slip is not easily discernible. He must be aware that he cannot outflank the SNP on the left; any attempt to do so will prove a fool’s errand.

His job is not to outspend the Nationalists. It’s to offer a distinct, coherent policy agenda with fairness, choice, and opportunity at its heart. This is a task Mr Murphy is more than equal to. It’s time he got on with it.

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

A strong start for Dugdale but Sturgeon remains untouchable

The keenest-sought accolade in Scottish politics today is to be deemed to have had “a good referendum”.

Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson, and Jim Murphy all had good referendums. Johann Lamont, Alistair Carmichael, and Anas Sarwar generally did not.

Kezia Dugdale, though, secured her good referendum status later than most, winning praise for her impressive turn in STV’s town hall debate two weeks out from polling day. The format paired the Labour MSP against pro-independence actress Elaine C Smith on the subject of social justice. Commentators held few hopes for Ms Dugdale as a politician going up against an entertainer who could play the anti-politics card to court the audience.

While the celebrity debater played that very card, Ms Dugdale surprised many with a passionate defence of the Union as a platform for creating a more just and equal society. Her answers were clearly heartfelt and showed the viewers at home, most of them likely encountering her for the first time, that she was more than a machine politician who read the lines and got off the stage.

In assessing her performance that night, I noted her “sustained assault on the SNP’s ideological left-right acrobatics on policies like college places and the living wage”, before adding: “Expect to see more of her in the final two weeks of the campaign and in the Scottish Labour Party in the years to come.”

But even I didn’t expect to see her rise to her party’s deputy leadership aged just 33. That elevation has been facilitated by the crisis facing Scottish Labour, with the party on course to be all but wiped out north of the border in next May’s general election.

Ms Dugdale, who only became an MSP in 2011, is leading the Labour charge at First Minister’s Questions until new party head Jim Murphy can find a Scottish Parliament seat. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the best debater in Scottish politics, could have been forgiven for expecting an easy ride given her opposite number’s relative lack of experience.

Any such assumption would have been quickly dispelled by the strong performance turned in by Ms Dugdale, who used the opportunity to put the SNP leader on the spot over the global collapse in oil prices. This is a touchy subject for the Nationalists, who promised prices of $113 a barrel during the referendum campaign but have looked on with the rest of the world as Brent Crude plummeted to $60 earlier this week.

Ms Sturgeon pledged to listen to any policy proposals Labour might have in this area. That’s a polite way of saying: “And what exactly would you do differently? I’m all ears.”

It’s all part of the First Minister’s shiny, happy people strategy of appealing for a more consensual approach to politics. Whenever a politician calls for consensus, what they really mean is “Please stop asking me difficult questions”. “Consensus” has become a one-way ratchet for politicians to go on the offensive while demanding their opponents take the high road; it’s like punching someone in the street and appealing for a consensus on not calling the police.

The purpose of government is to implement policy and the job of the opposition is to scrutinise and challenge. Prizing consensus above the honest, if sometimes harsh, divisions of parliamentary debate does not make our politics more mature or constructive. It insulates MSPs from the broad range of opinions held by the public on important issues. “Consensus” is a protection racket for the political class and the rise of Ukip in England should have taught us by now where it leads.

No one can touch Ms Sturgeon politically. She’s an instinctive leader, tough but sincere, determined but open-minded, and more in tune with the sentiments and aspirations of ordinary people than someone who has spent most of her life in politics really ought to be. Above all else, she’s blessed with a natural likeability. You want her to do well, or you want yourself to want her to do well.

But her professed conversion to consensus politics risks introducing an unwelcome phoniness to a politician admired for being genuine. She would do well to drop the kumbaya talk quietly and get some new lines. Eventually, her honeymoon period will fade, rows will arise here and scandals there, and her appeals for cross-party unity will begin to look like weakness. She should take the opportunity of a new adversary across the debating chamber to find her first ministerial voice.

For Ms Dugdale’s part, she should ramp up the pressure on the First Minister, using FMQs to put Ms Sturgeon on the defensive in areas trumpeted by the SNP: energy, the constitution, the economy, and social justice. She should carry herself as a future leader and not as a stop-gap solution to Mr Murphy’s parliamentary homelessness. I would add that she talks too quickly — public speaking is a boxing match, not a sprint — and her voice still carries a nervous tremor. However, these are problems that can be corrected with time and practice by someone of her capabilities.

Elsewhere, Tory leader Ruth Davidson flubbed her lines in a question about John Swinney’s stamp duty replacement levy, referring to the Scottish Government as the “Scottish Conservatives”. What with the SNP’s fondness for council tax freezes and corporate tax cuts, it’s an easy mistake to make. The gaffe doesn’t detract from what has been a successful year for the Glasgow MSP, with strong performances in the debating chamber and on the referendum campaign trail.

Of course, that and a fiver will get you a venti cinnamon latte (hold the foam) in Starbucks. What matters is whether she can carry this momentum forward into the general election. To do so, she has to overcome not only the standard Scottish hostility towards all things Tory but also a buoyant SNP and a new Scottish Labour leader that Middle Scotland can feel comfortable voting for.

Still, her party is more optimistic, confident even, than it has been in years and if it can focus its energies and resources on one or two target seats — without actually revealing them, as it incautiously did in 2010 — it could add to its current total of one MP in Scotland.

Of course Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie and Green joint-co-vice-primus-inter-pares convenor Patrick Harvie turned in solid performances but they will have to step up to compete with the three strong women who will dominate the remainder of this parliament, even if one will be as a deputy leader. This new gender balance is something to be proud of and will do more to change Scottish politics than ersatz chumminess.

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

Neil Findlay outlines his vision for a socialist Scotland

Neil Findlay has no business being a politician.

The brickie turned housing officer turned teacher turned MSP didn’t come up through the special adviser/policy wonk ranks like so many parliamentarians today.

And it shows. He doesn’t talk like a career politician, in it for power and position. That sincerity shouldn’t be confused for the poisonous anti-politics mood that has seized the nation. Mr Findlay is no crass populist; he clearly loves politics. It’s just that for him politics has a purpose beyond tactics and strategy and playing the game. He’s in it for more earthly reasons. He wants to do things.

As Margaret Thatcher, not someone of whom Mr Findlay was overly fond, once put it: “In my day, people would resolve to do something, now they resolve to be someone.”

Findlay falls decidedly into the former category and I was keen to hear about his vision for Scottish Labour, the party he is bidding to lead, so I asked if we could meet for an interview.

He arrives at STV armed with a glass bottle filled with a congealed brown substance and immediately asks to see John MacKay.

Now, I concede there may be one or two poor souls out there not taken by the charms of our anchorman — the sort of people who stick a W on the start of that term, which isdefinitely not clever. Heh. — but surely the MSP wasn’t about to deliver ginger bottle justice for one Will Ferrell tweet too many.

Blootering the Nation’s Most Beloved Newsreader (as we’re contractually obliged to describe him) could seriously damage Findlay’s bid to head up Scottish Labour. Or possibly springboard him into the lead.

Thankfully my fears were unfounded. The Lothian MSP had brought the Glasgow lad one of the capital’s famed delicacies, chippie sauce — a concoction of brown sauce and vinegar that lies at the heart of the great East-West condimental divide: salt ‘n’ vinegar or salt ‘n’ sauce.

Mr MacKay raised hopes of an eventual two-sauce solution to this long-running conflict by graciously accepting the gift and no one pointed out that Mr Findlay is Scottish Labour’s health spokesman and probably shouldn’t be promoting such nutritionally questionable products.

This illustrates what I mean about Findlay. He’s a normal guy and acts like it. There is nothing stage-managed or focus-grouped about him.

Why, then, does he want to be leader of Scottish Labour, a party that doesn’t have its sorrows to seek.

However, he is far from downcast and says: “It’s a tremendous opportunity. I love the Labour Party and I’ve been in it since I was 18 years old. We need to get the Labour Party back into a position where we can win again in Scotland. The life experience I have, the drive and determination, but most of all the policy agenda that I’m putting forward, that’s starting to excite people.

“I’ve had a thousand people volunteer to help me in my campaign. That’s an astonishing number of people. I’m not an arrogant person; I don’t believe they’re joining up because it’s me. They’re joining up because they’re excited about the policy agenda.”

That policy agenda is bold, far bolder than Labour has been in Scotland or anywhere else in the UK for many years. He wants to scrap Trident, renationalise the railways, build 50,000 council and social houses, end youth unemployment, and legislate a new Charter of Workers’ Rights that bans zero-hours contracts, upgrades the minimum wage to the living wage, cracks down on corporate culpable homicide, and establishes a public inquiry into trade union blacklisting.

Findlay is not, you might have guessed by this point, of a New Labour inclination. He is intensely relaxed about redistributing wealth.

The most left-wing candidate in the field, Findlay is a clause four man. He believes in the transformative power of collective action. He talks class. He launched his candidacy in a speech to a miners’ welfare club that was trailed in the Morning Star. So it’s not surprising when he insists: “I’m not a social democrat. I’m not a democratic socialist. I’m a socialist.”

But what does socialism mean to him?

He explains: “For me it’s never been something I’ve learned about from a textbook. It’s about how I’ve lived my life and what I’ve experienced in my community and that’s a mining community where the values of community and solidarity and justice and compassion and looking out for your fellow human being is ingrained in that community. That for me is what socialism is about.”

This is why the Better Together campaign frustrated him during the referendum. Findlay had always advocated a Labour anti-independence campaign that put social justice at the heart of the case for the United Kingdom. The cross-party Better Together organisation, which saw Labour MSPs share a platform with their Conservative opponents, failed to offer voters a radical alternative to both Tory austerity and SNP parochialism.

Findlay puts it bluntly: “If you don’t have a job, if you’re living in poor housing conditions, if the community round about you doesn’t feel supportive, and if you’re relying on food banks to feed your family, being told ‘Oh by the way, you’re better together’ means nothing to you. Why would someone vote No when they had a feeling that their life couldn’t get any worse?

“We did not give them a vision as to what our alternative was. That was the glaring missed opportunity. People have to feel that they’ve got hope. Labour has to be about giving people hope. We have to get back to the place where we are representing ordinary working people and their aspirations for themselves and their family.”

His voice grows grave as he adds: “If we don’t, I think we are in trouble.”

I push him to explain what he means by this cryptic warning.

“No political party has the divine right to exist. It doesn’t have the divine right to win seats at elections. You’ve got to work for that, you’ve got to earn the votes of every voter and you’ve got to earn their respect.

“Over the last 20 to 30 years, there has been a move to court a certain type of voter where our traditional voters, who were a big coalition of people, started to think ‘Labour doesn’t represent me anymore’. I think that was a mistake.

“Of course you have to get support across the social spectrum and I think we can do that because I did 63 meetings during the referendum. Consistently through that, the theme of social justice was raised, whether that was in working class communities or by middle class people.

“There is a broad spectrum of society that is really concerned about the inequality in our society. That’s the coalition that we have to convince that Labour is the solution to these problems.”

To be part of the solution, he believes, Labour must place “an attack on health and wealth inequality” at the heart of its policy programme and political narrative.

“That’s the biggest challenge that we face across society and none more so than this great city where we see people living a few miles apart and there’s 20 years of difference in their life expectancy. It’s to our collective shame that we’ve allowed that to continue in Scotland. I see it in my own community, I see it in the street where I live.”

He adds: “That’s what people in Scotland were raising as a major concern during the referendum, whether they voted Yes or No.”

That means both challenging the SNP’s claim to be a left-wing party but also avoiding the trap of organising Labour’s strategy and policies around opposition to the Nationalists.

He scoffs at the idea that Nicola Sturgeon’s party is left-of-centre, arguing: “It’s nonsense. You only have to look at the SNP’s policy programme. It’s not a social democratic programme. It does no redistribution of money from the rich to the poor. Things like the council tax freeze punish the poorest people. People with the biggest houses gain most and the services for the poorest are cut most. That’s not a progressive policy.

“They have slashed college places, denying working class young people opportunities. They want to devolve corporation tax but they don’t want to devolve it to increase the revenue. They want it to cut the taxes for the biggest companies. These are not the actions of a progressive government.

“However, for all that, we cannot judge ourselves by what the SNP do. We have to have a proud, clear Labour programme about what we stand for and be very clear in putting across those messages to the electorate about poverty, health inequality, housing, and the social care crisis in the NHS.

“We should stand or fall by our policies, not simply look to the opposition and say they’re doing that so we have to do this.”

What Labour must do, Findlay reckons, is improve its policy and its politics, by offering a bold vision and bringing into the party people who can engage with ordinary voters, the people Labour has lost in the past few years. As leader, he would set about shaking up the party’s organisation and policy formation to make Scottish Labour a winning party once again.

He’s confident that these changes could even secure victory as early as the 2015 general election and the 2016 Scottish Parliament poll.

He insists: “Of course we can win. We have to do that by doing four things. We have to have the strategy and we have lacked a clear strategy in recent years. We have to have policy because you can have the best PR machine possible but if you don’t have anything to tell people then it’s useless.

“We need a communications plan that ensures that those policies resonate and get through via social media, on the doorstep, and in our literature that we put out. And finally we need the right team in place. We need to have the top people, the best people that we can recruit.

“People will join a political party when they’re excited about the policy programme. You join because it’s the politics that attracts you, not the fact that we have a glossy image or media campaign. We have to reflect the society that’s out there. I want more bricklayers in parliament and representing us on councils.

“I want more nurses, more people who work in Tesco, people who are involved in all sorts of employment because that’s much richer than if we have a particular type of person who goes from school to university to being an adviser to a politician to becoming a politician.

“That’s not me being critical of people who have done that. Because many of them who are friends of mine who have gone through that route are fantastic at their job. But it does not give us the richness that we need to represent Labour in parliament and I want to look very seriously at that.”

Key to that is to end the false dichotomy between Labour’s “core vote” — which is very core indeed these days — and what we are now obliged to term “aspirational voters” (read: people who live in Newton Mearns).

Findlay maintains: “I find it frustrating that people would suggest that working class people have no aspiration. It is nonsense. The people who I’ve grown up with who are my best friends and will always be my best friends have huge aspirations for themselves and the families. It is the system that has held many of them back.

“I don’t see there being a difference between the aspirations of working class people and middle class people. We share aspirations for a better tomorrow and Labour has to reflect that.”

Findlay has ideas, something Scottish Labour has been lacking of late, and the personality to take them to an electorate grown tired of this ever-vacillating political quantity, this vacuum of vision and ambition, this managerial party that can’t manage anything.

His unique selling point — a phrase so hideous you can imagine Peter Mandelson saying it with a smile — is authenticity. There is no artifice with Findlay and he would present real difficulties to an SNP eager to paint Scottish Labour as a party of neoliberal sellouts, Westminster-lite.

I can think of no Labour politician more capable of challenging the SNP to a fight on left-wing territory and showing up the Nationalists as just another centrist, vote-buying party, no different from New Labour or the Tories or Lib Dems. If Jim Murphy is the candidate who would give the SNP the most PR headaches, Findlay is the man to get under the Nationalists’ skin on policy.

How his socialist impulses and agenda will sit with more moderate Labour voters remains to be seen. Team Murphy will be hoping that party members, including those who might agree with much of what Findlay espouses, will fear he is too radical and that his election would represent a leftwards lurch too far for moderate voters. There is some credence to this: Elections in this country are still won and lost in the centre ground.

But Findlay’s candidacy is undoubtedly the most powerful, coherent, and ambitious leadership bid the Labour left has mounted in a long time. It deserves to be taken seriously because it is a serious proposition. Findlay’s ideas, his determination, and his ordinary-bloke credentials make him a formidable figure in Scottish Labour politics. Whatever the outcome of the leadership vote, and whatever the right of his party might want, Findlay is certain to play a central role in any revival of Scottish Labour.

Read Neil Findlay’s Facebook Q&A with STV viewers.

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

Interview: Jim Murphy on patriotism, socialism and Labour’s future

Jim Murphy loves Scotland.

I know this because he assures me of it at least a dozen times in a half-hour interview.

Scotland is his country. He’s proud of it. He intends to do well by it.

Asked why he wants to lead Scottish Labour, the first thing he says is: “It sounds trite, but I love my country.”

This expression of national pride is jarring because the SNP has so comprehensively co-opted the language of patriotism. That Murphy is comfortable talking about his love of country sets him apart from so many Scottish Labour politicians in recent years.

That’s not all that makes him different. He loves his Irn-Bru and his Celtic — some sort of football club popular in the West of Scotland, m’lud — and for a politician he seems remarkably, well, normal.

He’s the only vegetarian I’ve ever spent more than three minutes with and not wanted to punch.

He has a sense of humour, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and though he speaks with evident passion about creating a fairer society, it is clear that politics is not his life.

“I’ve never been a favourite in an election but I’ve never come second,” he points out, before chewing it over and adding: “There’s three candidates in this race so maybe I’ll come third this time and keep that record.”

He’s the sort of bloke you could have a pint with. Except he’s teetotal.

(An abstemious vegetarian? Applying to lead Scottish Labour? At a time like this? If he wins, I give it six months before he gets tanked on half a Bacardi Breezer and challenges Len McCluskey to a square go in a Nando’s car park.)

Career

In the Scottish Labour leadership election, Murphy stands out as the only MP contesting for the top job. A former president of the National Union of Students (where he made himself a power of enemies by reversing the NUS’s opposition to scrapping grants), he pulled off a surprise win in the safe Tory seat of Eastwood in 1997. He has retained the seat, now known as East Renfrewshire, ever since and despite the best efforts of the Conservatives to win back the prosperous suburban constituency.

Although often branded a Blairite, his political star came into the ascendancy when Gordon Brown took over at Number Ten and Murphy was appointed Europe minister and later Secretary of State for Scotland, a position from which he masterminded Labour’s successful 2010 election in Scotland.

His 100 Towns in 100 Days tour of Scotland during the independence referendum was seen as both a welcome energy boost for the Better Together campaign and a brazen pitch to replace the ineffective Johann Lamont as Scottish Labour leader. (It was also a tactic blatantly nicked from Neil Kinnock — coincidentally, a recent Murphy backer — who figured out early on that the 1983 general election was lost and drove round the country with a megaphone denouncing Thatcherism and positioning himself to succeed Michael Foot.) Murphy infamously attracted Nationalist hecklers to his soapbox speeches, their roiling anger — and flying dairy produce — betraying the threat they deemed him to pose.

If Labour’s electoral college of MPs, MSPs, members, and unions award him the job, Nationalists think Murphy’s 17-year record at Westminster will provide them with endless lines of attack:- His support for tuition fees; his vote for military action in Iraq; his parliamentary expenses.

The problem is that anyone who won’t vote Labour because Jim Murphy supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein stopped voting Labour a long time ago and probably never will again. Murphy himself recognises the need to move on from New Labour, while careful to pay the necessary obeisance to that project and the leader who brought Labour back out of the wilderness.

He explains: “New Labour is a way of thinking and of designing your politics that was of the moment in the mid-90s. It’s 20 years of age and it’s time to do things a bit differently. I’m not fascinated by whether people are left-wing or right-wing, New or Old Labour, I want us to be winning Labour.”

The time has come, he reckons, to step beyond the party’s most successful leader: “I think we need a post-Tony Blair Labour Party that’s patriotic, that’s radical. The Labour Party’s had six leaders since Tony Blair: two UK leaders and four Scottish leaders. It’s time for us to move on. Tony Blair was the right answer to the questions of his era. He’s a long time gone so it’s time to move on and be more confident about our future rather than continually harking on and looking in our rear-view mirror about our past.”

Murphy is not the candidate to bring disaffected lefties back into the fold. They have gone to the fringes or to the SNP, socialist Scotland’s favourite neoliberal party. His appeal is to the mainstream Labour voter, including those who have become more comfortable voting SNP in recent years. But as he argued during the Scotland Tonight leadership hustings, his pitch reaches further than that. “I don’t think we can just talk to Labour voters,” he said. “There aren’t enough of them.”

That means driving Labour’s tanks onto the SNP’s lawns just as brazenly as Alex Salmond did to Labour over the last decade. For the most committed SNP supporters, independence is everything but amongst the Nationalists’ impressive electoral coalition there are many, including Yes voters, who have other priorities.

Winning over Yes voters

Cast your mind back, if you can, to a time before the referendum campaign, when we had entire conversations and even parliamentary debates about things other than the constitution. Murphy’s task is to return the political debate to education, health, and the economy — and to offer voters bold alternatives to the SNP. His Blairite credentials might even come in handy here.

Scottish politics needs a substantial opposition figure other than Tory leader Ruth Davidson who is willing to think the unthinkable in order to reform education, improve the NHS, and create jobs. There is real scope to take on some of the SNP’s sacred cows, particularly their hostility to the non-state sectors, and offer parents, patients, businesspeople, public sector workers, and taxpayers policies driven by outcomes rather than the SNP’s uneasy mixture of populism and ideology.

How bold Murphy is willing or inclined to be remains to be seen, but he is determined to reach out to everyone necessary to win, including Yes voters.

He maintains: “You have to move beyond the referendum. You don’t win people’s affections by telling them they were wrong… It’s about reaching out to these folk and making a patriotic case that we believe in similar things; we just disagree about how to achieve them. On the basis that we’ve now decided the constitutional arrangements of Scotland for a generation, as we were told, then let’s work together.

“If ever there’s a referendum again, we’ll be on different sides of that probably, but let’s work together in the meantime and try to create a better society. The challenge for the Labour Party is to be a party again that people can see a cause of social justice in. For example, I want to put income tax up to 50% as part that.”

His own brand of socialism

That left tilt is perfectly balanced by a pitch to the middle ground.

“In terms of aspirational voters, it’s about guaranteeing that if you go to work you’ll be better off in work than if you are on benefit. Now that parts of the welfare state are going to be devolved to Scotland, that’s important. It’s also about saying to people they deserve a decent home and it they want to own their home, I’m happy about that. I’m in favour of more people owning their home.”

He wouldn’t reinstate the Right to Buy but wants to ensure there are enough houses, council, social, and private, to end homelessness.

Murphy insists he is a socialist, a claim that his critics and even some of his supporters would scoff at. The MP for East Renfrewshire is not someone you’d mistake for a Morning Star seller standing outside a boarded-up Woolworths on a drizzly Saturday morning.

But Comrade Murphy has his own definition:

“Everyone who’s comfortable with that title had a different definition. For me it means it doesn’t matter where you’re born or the family you’re born into, you should have a fair chance. And you should get a second and third chance in life. Strident, right-wing Conservatism has a sense of you being on your own; it’s like advanced social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest. I think every human being is created equal and people should have an equal chance.

“It’s up to people what you do with your chance but my politics are that you should get a first chance, a second chance, a third chance. But you only get one shot at life and a politician’s job is to help you make the most of your life. If you don’t take your chances, there’s nothing I can do about that, but I’m a patient person and I’d like to give people multiple chances and choices. That’s my socialism. Others have their own definition.”

I don’t buy Murphy’s definition for a second but it is obvious that justice in one form or another is the nucleus of his political philosophy. While most Labour politicians learn about injustice from The Road to Wigan Pier or The Soul of Man under Socialism, Murphy lived it first hand during his early years in South Africa.

His parents were driven there in search of work and better opportunities for their family. What greeted the 12-year-old Jim was the moral obscenity of apartheid. He describes a thread of segregation that ran through every aspect of public and private life. It is the only point during the interview that he’s subdued and his voice takes on a sadness that seems to come from another time and place.

He recounts: “It was a bizarre nightmare of a society, where the only thing that mattered was the colour of your skin. In a country where almost 90% of the country were black Africans, you could easily go weeks without coming into contact with anyone other than someone of the same skin colour. You would stand at a Whites Only bus stop to go to a Whites Only school. You would travel on Whites Only buses. It was an unforgivable type of politics but the remarkable thing is that so many South Africans have forgiven.”

He adds: “I had to go to a Whites Only school where you had to learn Afrikaans, you had to be bilingual. Every Thursday you had to turn up to school in your cadet uniform and march up and down the rugby field to prepare to go and serve two years in the South African army. The society was structured around the maintenance of a minority politics. The media was controlled by the state, the curriculum was influenced by the state’s racism, sport was used to bolster a white supremacy. Then, like the Berlin Wall, it all just fell over.”

Life under Apartheid

He paints a harrowing picture of a society that practised totalitarianism over the human spirit. It is, however, where he felt the first stirrings of political radicalism.

He recalls: “Nelson Mandela’s name was banned — and his photograph. You weren’t allowed to say his name and the newspapers weren’t allowed to print his name or his photograph or they would have been shut down. It’s a remarkable experience to have your political consciousness forged in a place where democratic politics wasn’t tolerated and the biggest decisions you’ve got to make are daily ones about the way in which you live your life.

“Do you buy into the casual, all-encompassing racism that dominated your education and dominated the culture of the country? I chose to opt out of that in all sorts of different ways. You find a social circle that wants nothing to do with it. You find ways of arguing against it. Then when it comes to the big decision about whether you’re going to serve in the South African army, I left the country.”

The move, he interjects, was not motivated by pacifism or cowardice. “I wasn’t going to spend two years of my life propping up the vile beast that was apartheid.”

Instead he went to Glasgow, to study at Strathclyde University, and it was years before he saw the family he had left behind in Cape Town again. There’s that sadness again, but his tone quickly turns upbeat when he remembers that the experience, and the British Government’s stance on apartheid, drove him to political activism.

“Mrs Thatcher got me to join the Labour Party,” he announces with pride. The late Conservative Prime Minister had opposed international sanctions against South Africa and deemed the African National Congress a terrorist outfit rather than a liberation movement. “I had just returned from that country and couldn’t understand it at all.”

Now, a quarter of a century on, Murphy wants to lead his party, or at least its Scottish “branch office”. He could hardly have picked a worse time, given the party’s continuing opposition at Holyrood, dreadful poll numbers, and an SNP surging towards 100,000 members and a possible breakthough at Westminster next May.

The Sturgeon challenge

The real obstacle to his political ambitions is the new First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon is a social democrat’s dream come true, a politician so perfectly attuned to the ideals and impulses of north European progressivism that she could almost have walked off the set of her favourite TV programme Borgen.

Quite how that fits with a party that campaigns for corporate tax cuts and a services-slashing council tax freeze is a dynamic yet to play itself out. But as personal polling numbers show, this contradiction does not weigh on the minds of the electorate, who consistently rate the First Minister above any other politician in trust and effectiveness.

I ask Murphy if the SNP is a “left-of-centre” party and I’ve barely reached the question mark before he rejects the idea. Surely, I push, Nicola Sturgeon’s politics are more clearly aligned with Labour voters than Alex Salmond’s ever were.

“We’ll see what Nicola Sturgeon is, we’ve yet to see what she really is. I think she’s effective, I think she’s formidable. Nicola Sturgeon will be what she needs to be to build a coalition to get independence. The SNP are unencumbered by an economic anchor; they will drift wherever they need to go to build a coalition that gets them to 50% plus one of the votes in any future referendum.”

Outside Glasgow and the west, he assures me, many of the SNP’s supporters are not left-wing and lend their vote to the Nationalists as the “anyone but Labour” party. However, in Labour’s traditional working-class heartlands, he recognises how much work has to be done.

He concedes: “In terms of the central belt, the Labour Party hasn’t been good enough. That’ll change. We haven’t been strong enough, we haven’t been proud enough, we haven’t been radical enough.” That radicalism need not mean ideological policies, he argues, and should include overlooked and unpopular issues like mental health and prison reform.

But he is convinced that Labour alone is the platform on which a progressive politics can be built.

“Radical social reform in our country comes from the Labour Party, when it comes to things like ending discrimination based on people’s sexuality, driving out discrimination based on gender, the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, all the great social reforms in our country – the national minimum wage, devolution, freedom of information – all of these great reforms come from a Labour government. The SNP have spent seven years in power and while they’ve done some important things that the Labour Party should probably have supported – such as the minimum pricing of alcohol – there’s a lot more that can be done.”

Still, if Murphy wins — and that’s not guaranteed; Labour’s trade union money men aren’t keen on him — he faces a monumental challenge. He will be leading a party that has lost the votes, the patience, and frankly the goodwill of the people of Scotland. Murphy talks a good game but that will matter for little if the voters no longer want to listen.

But he has skill and wit and charm. He sounds like a leader and looks like a First Minister. He also has necessity on his side. He is spoken of by his supporters as the only candidate who can make Scottish Labour electable again. That is for Labour members and trade unionist voters to decide. The bigger decision for this party is whether it should continue to be relevant to the political life of Scotland.

Political parties that dominate electoral systems, as Labour has done in Scotland for half a century, come to confuse their dominance for permanence. But nations change and parties that fail to change with them are left behind. Consider the fate of Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party, the Democrat Party in the American South, or closer to home and a century back the Liberal Party. There is no law in heaven or earth that says the Scottish Labour Party must endure.

Labour responded to its defeat in 2007 by going into denial. In the wake of its 2011 drubbing, it gave the impression of a party that had still not come to terms with its electoral reversal and had lost the will to fight back. The opinion polls for next May’s general election and the 2016 Scottish Parliament vote hint at results ranging from dire to apocalyptic.

A winning Labour

Murphy seems acutely aware of the odds stacked against his party at the moment. “The Scottish Labour Party is the underdog. Scottish Labour is used to being the champion of the underdog; it hasn’t often found itself to be the underdog.”

Under his leadership, the party will “get out of the recently acquired habit of losing”. What would a Murphy-run, non-losing Scottish Labour look like?

“We would have a much more professional party, a better-funded party, a much more confident party that takes its chin off its chest and stands up for itself. That says our cause is as great as the Nationalists’, if not greater. The sense of solidarity in our country and beyond and the knowledge that a boundary or a border has never put food in the tummy of any kid anywhere in the world. It’s about energy, optimism, and a sense of self-belief.

“We win, we hold what we have in 2015 and we go into a two-horse race against the Nats in 2016 where I think we can build a coalition of people, some of whom have always voted Labour and some of whom have never voted Labour. And in a two-horse race, I’m pretty confident we’ll win.”

It can’t be easy to summon up that kind of optimism at these times but the positivity seems genuine. It shouldn’t be allowed to lapse into complacency. Scottish Labour is a party fast running out of chances. Jim Murphy will be hoping members see him as one of those chances — and grab it while they can.

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

Gordon Brown: A flawed giant who got a rare second act in political life

“There are no second acts in American lives,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once lamented.

As an admirer of the American political scene – he idolises Robert F Kennedy and his “strain of moral commitment” – Gordon Brown could have been forgiven for assuming his defeat at the 2010 general election would similarly curtail his political career.

But politics has a way of surprising even the veteran and practised. The election of an SNP majority government at Holyrood in 2011 made a referendum on independence inevitable. Mr Brown’s role in the campaign was muted at first but in the final months, with the Yes vote creeping up in poll after poll, he was called upon to lend his integrity to a campaign that had alienated Labour voters with its negativity.

The mythology surrounding The Vow has long since loosed itself from the text of that pledge and those Nationalists who at the time of its publication dismissed it as a stunt not to be taken seriously now speak of it in reverent tones, as though Mr Brown had followed Moses down Mount Sinai with a scroll of revisions.

Where Brown really came into his own was not in a few lines on the front page of the Daily Record. His speech on the eve of referendum day was one of the most impassioned perorations any of us will see in our lifetimes. Every word burned with righteous fury. Gone were the standard punctuation marks of public speaking: The tempered pace, the modulations of tone, and the pauses deployed for solemn effect. There was no time for such niceties; there was a country to be saved.

Scotland voted No and the voters waited to see if Brown’s promise of “nothing less than a modern form of Scottish home rule” would come to pass. The Smith Commission, which reported last week, contained a substantial range of powers but if it represents a modern form of home rule, it is a modern one indeed. This is why Mr Brown has been the target of so much ire from the Nationalists. They perceive him to have scuppered their chances of independence then reneged on his pledge to the voters.

The truth is somewhat more nuanced. Mr Brown’s grandiloquent pronouncements were the words of a maverick let off the leash. He was in no position to deliver these promises but with the Union at stake, the No campaign allowed itself to forget such practicalities and sighed with relief as the popular former Labour leader roused the faithful. Whether he saved the UK, we will never know. However, we can say with certainty that his contribution was large and substantial and came at a time of crisis in Better Together.

Of course, we’re beginning at the end. Mr Brown stepped onto the political stage in 1983, at Labour’s lowest ebb. Some questioned at that time, not unreasonably, whether Labour would survive the decade. Mr Brown joined the vanguard of bright young things, at first surrounding Neil Kinnock and then running the party themselves, who dragged Labour out of electoral irrelevance and refashioned it into an election-winning machine, an outfit which Tony Blair aptly nominated the “political wing of the British people”.

That ambition was realised in the 1997 landslide, which didn’t so much redraw the map of British politics as take giant tin of red paint and pour it over every part of the UK. The election ushered in a new, reforming government and Brown kickstarted the changes by devolving control over interest rates to the Bank of England. This wasn’t your father’s Labour Party.

As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Brown set about creating new taxes and redistributing wealth by stealth, targeting Britain’s social and economic travails while keeping the City and the Daily Mail (more or less) on board. There was a national minimum wage, sustained economic growth, and the canny Scot’s prudence kept the UK out of the euro.

But Mr Brown’s flaws — political, economic, and personal — were many and came to overshadow his successes. He was a control freak; like all geniuses, frustrated at the mediocrity of those around him. He was intemperate of alternative points of view and disdainful of collective decision-making. The sketchwriters’ caricature of a dour, brooding Scot set English public opinion against him and every attempt to win it over ended badly, and often embarrassingly.

He flunked the courage test when he failed to call an election in 2007 and secure a mandate for his government. His raid on pensions has still not been forgiven by those who lost out. His deregulation of the financial markets, the relaxed attitude to casino mortgages, and explosion in public expenditure all caught up with him in the credit crunch and the recession that followed. And his tribal brand of Labourism made a coalition with the Liberal Democrats impossible after the 2010 election.

The description of him by one senior Labour figure as “psychologically flawed” was a cruel jibe but one that seemed plausible, even to those who bore him no particular ill will. He was a difficult personality, forever on the shortest of fuses. The jock-baiting of some sections of the London-based press was matched by a contempt amongst journalists north of the border. Brown never swayed the commentariat the way Blair did. His problem was that he cared and, like John Major before him, it got under his skin. Few senior politicians in living memory have seemed so consistently angry.

It is obvious to cast Brown as a latter-day Macbeth, pining darkly for an office which was his eventual undoing. But the heights of his achievements and the depths of his reversals cannot help but summon the cruelest ironies of Shakepearean hamartia. Had he remained in the post which he felt smothered his larger talents, he might have been remembered as a landmark Chancellor rather than a failed Prime Minister.

When we weigh the costs and benefits in the political balance sheet, there is a missing debt on the ledger. That is the Gordon Brown no one talks about. Under Brown, Labour passed the Equality Act, a progressive piece of anti-discrimination legislation. Paid holiday leave entitlements were increased, tax credits expanded, and parents given the right to request flexible working hours. When Labour came to power in 1997, one in every four children lived in relative poverty; when Brown left office in 2010, that figure had fallen to one in five.

Brown supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein but he was also the Prime Minister who set up the Chilcot Inquiry into the lead-up to military action. He was a champion for Africa, the kind that sent money instead of wearing sloganeering wristbands. When he entered Number Ten, the department of international development aid programme budget was just over £5bn. By the time he left, it had risen to more than £7.5bn.

And he endured every parent’s nightmare when his baby daughter Jennifer Jane died aged just ten days. Some fathers could not have endured another day of public life; they would have preferred a private and sombre existence. But Brown’s zeal for fighting poverty and strengthening society gave him a purpose and the drive to pursue it.

British prime ministers have tended to be realists rather than moralists and even the most patrician have shied away from invoking a higher purpose, or, Heaven forfend, a higher power in their ministry of the nation. This tradition was broken in different ways by the two great post-war prime ministers: Clement Attlee, who strove to build a New Jerusalem, and free-market evangelist Margaret Thatcher, in whose political theology the economic flaws of socialism were as nothing compared to its moral turpitude.

Amongst the generation of politicians who followed in the wake of ’45 and ’79, the two bitterest rivals both brought a moral impulse to bear on the business of government, though two very different strains of moralism. Tony Blair, despite the insistence of his spin doctor Alastair Campbell that “we don’t do God”, could often sound like an American president in his openness about his faith and the part it played in his governing philosophy. Blair’s was an Anglo-Catholic ethos that thought and acted big. New Labour, New Testament.

Brown was more Old Testament. Greed and selfishness, and the structural injustices which calcify because of them, were man’s original sin. Moral improvement channelled through the instrument of government could be our deliverance.

He has a mutual admiration for the conservative historian of Victorian virtue Gertrude Himmelfarb, for whose The Roads to Modernity he penned a foreword. Mr Brown told readers of Professor Himmelfarb’s veneration of the British and American Enlightenments — the ordered liberty and social commonalities of these two movements held in contrast to the radical and disruptive forces of the French Englightenment — that Britain’s contribution to modernity was “a desire to bring about a more decent, humane and compassionate society. Its temper was progressive and reformist; its proponents were social reformers and religious dissenters as well as academics and public intellectuals; and it celebrated the virtues and affections of ordinary people.”

Mr Brown proclaimed his comity with this cause, “progressive change resting on a deep moral sense… individual liberty hand in hand with social responsibility and active citizenship.” Left-wing intellectuals in the UK recoiled in horror at Brown’s seeming endorsement of what were once reformist principles but which have since been spurned as the moralism of bourgeois meddlers and judgemental Bible-clutchers.

In this myopia, the Left was lost for the words to describe Mr Brown, who had no helpful “illegal” war or close friendship with George W Bush to define him. The truth is that Mr Brown was never a socialist in the Marxist sense. He has always been a moral romantic, an impassioned ethicist of the human condition and prosthelytiser for the redemptive power of social bonds to heal fractured individualism. A sincere Christian and a devout democrat, his is a Son of the Manse socialism. In the Book of Brown, man is fallen but together men can get back up again.

“A just balance and scales are the Lord’s,” Proverbs tells us. “All the weights in the bag are His work.” In his farewell speech to colleagues and party workers on Monday night, Mr Brown remarked on the odd experience of reading his political obituaries before he had formally announced his resignation. Whether his flaws will come to outweigh his contributions will be debated by his partisans and his detractors. Historians, the scholarly revisers of received wisdom, will come in time to pass their judgement.

He fought a good fight, finished his course, and kept the faith. Mr Brown got his second act and in his continuing work on international development, global education, and girls’ rights, he may even find a third.

Originally published on STV News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by STV News on Thursday, 27 November 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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