Help prevent the Million from becoming Missing again (1)

On the last day to register to vote before the independence referendum – Tuesday 2 September – a group of Yes campaigners visited Edinburgh college with their stall at lunchtime. We didn’t actually manage to set it up.

Instead, we spent the next hour and a half registering people to vote. Almost a hundred of them, men and women, young and old, of all nationalities and backgrounds, from all over Scotland, the EU and the Commonwealth.

And the whole time I kept thinking, what if we hadn’t come? No one else – neither the college management, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) nor even NUS Scotland – had bothered to do a voter registration drive with a group that was clearly vulnerable either to not being registered at all or being registered in the wrong place to actually vote on 18 September. They would have missed out on participating in Scotland’s historic vote.

That day, I ended up handing in over 100 registration forms in an 11pm dash to the registration office. Forms of people signed up at bus queues, on buses shuttling to and from some of Edinburgh’s most deprived schemes and by hanging about outside bingo halls, libraries, schools and delapidated shopping centres. Over the whole of the campaign, I alone supported hundreds of people to register to vote – and there were many like me.

Highlights included the 16 year old registering on his birthday, the Latvian woman who’d lived here three years and whom no one had told she could vote as an EU national (who came and said hello when she voted) and the twin 15 year olds, whose 16th birthday was two days away and in typical teenage boy fashion, faffed around with it all so much they nearly missed their bus. They made for fitting last registrants of the campaign.

Then there’s the woman who took an age to be persuaded to do so, partly because eyeing up the form, it was clearly a literacy step too far but also because she feared someone – whoever he was – knowing where she now was. Whether or not she actually voted, she gave herself the choice to do so, taking an empowering step forward in asserting herself and her sense of self as a person with rights. Actually, there were a lot of women like her.

There’s also the young woman who lived at the top of a block of flats who reckoned she didn’t know enough to be voting. When asked to say what she thought the referendum was about, she gave a powerful and eloquent explanation about power, control and responsibility. Not things I’d hazard, she’d had a lot of in her own life. I talked her through the form which she completed herself and then by arrangement, went back on Referendum day to walk her to the polling place. Although only in her 20s, her capacity had clearly been compromised by some sort of trauma in her life and if I hadn’t gone for her, she wouldn’t have come out to vote.

It wasn’t just registering people to vote. On that floor of those flats alone, we helped four people keep their right to vote by giving them postal vote application forms to complete. We also posted them for them.  And I went back to check if they needed their actual votes posted for them too. Why? Because the lift in the flats was often broken and when it was they were captive in their own homes, unable, either through ill health or age, to use the six flights of stairs, and reliant on neighbours to run messages and errands.

When I appeared with my pile of forms an hour before midnight, the helpful ERO sighed in exasperation. They had had people in these areas earlier in the year, knocking on doors, trying to persuade people to register to vote, he said.

But therein lies the problem. People in areas like these don’t open their doors to men – and women – in suits. They don’t trust them, they mistake them for suits they are trying to avoid. Folk in these areas have acute antennae, they smell officialdom a mile off and have spent most of their lives avoiding it. The missing million aren’t just missing from the voter roll or from actually voting, they are also missing from day to day life as we know it.

The Electoral Commission’s proposals to tighten the Code of Conduct for campaigners to prevent folk like me from handling completed registration and absent voting forms completely misunderstands the reasons why traditional registration campaigns have failed and why efforts during the referendum campaign succeeded. I’m trying to work out if this is accidental or deliberate.

What is being deployed is a sledge hammer solution to an acute but minor problem of electoral fraud. The changes are a knock on requirement from the introduction of unique identifier requirements to such forms. The chosen unique identifiers of date of birth and National Insurance number are the problem here. There is no doubt this is highly sensitive personal information which requires careful handling and it is indeed highly valuable to potential and actual criminals, because it provides a gateway to identification theft.

But had the authorities decided to use our other unique identifier – the National Health Service number we are given when we are born or when we register with the NHS – this would have been less of a potential problem. Stealing that number might get you a hip replacement but there’s much less potential for monetary fraud. So now, we are getting the wrong fix to the wrong problem, which incidentally potentially exists within officialdom as much as within political parties.

In any event, we already have laws in place to protect against such fraud: using them more effectively to capture the tiny minority of political campaigners who abuse the system would provide more of a deterrent.

I’m not sure people in the Missing Million were asked for their opinions in the Electoral Commission’s research. But the conclusions drawn and the measures proposed also suggest an attempt by the establishment to pull up the drawbridge on those who, for the first time ever, managed to breach fortress entitlement through the participation process.

Until and unless we invest far more resources than we do currently in citizenship at the earliest age – primary, not secondary school – and in voter registration and education, and at the same time, simplify the process with plain language and procedures, then these proposals take us back, not forward. The Million will become missing once more, which might be in their interests, but it certainly isn’t in ours.

The Referendum has effected change that we cannot allow to be unmade and attempts like this to do so must be resisted strenuously. So, here’s something for the 45% to focus its pent up energy and enthusiasm on. It might not galvanise quite as much as a rally with flag waving or a tub thumping speech made from a platform, but then it might also just have some practical effect.

The Electoral Commission’s consultation runs until Monday 20 October. Please respond. 

UKIP is not their problem, it’s also ours

It’s easy to gloat when you’re the defeated 45% and electoral woes begin to beset the other side.  All that we were voting to escape from down South appears to be coming to pass.

The two by-election results on Thursday in England demonstrate that UKIP is definitely on the march, highlighting all that we said during the referendum campaign.  Electorally, we are now two distinct entities, goes the narrative, pulling in opposite directions.  They’re going rightward, we’re maintaining our leftward stance of decades.  We couldn’t be more different, remains the refrain.

Actually, we – as in the 45% – couldn’t be more wrong.  Because we need to start talking about what was really going on and being said on doorsteps in the referendum campaign. Having waited in vain for someone else to remove the rose-tinted glasses, it might as well be me.

I was shocked by the racism I encountered on doorsteps.  Not just occasionally but often.  Not just in some neighbourhoods but most neighbourhoods.  But it was most prevalent in the poorest and in the most working class. Areas that have in the past voted mainly Labour, but also SNP.

It might suit all the parties and most of the rest of us political activists vaguely/firmly of the left to pretend that Scotland is a nicer country, that is more welcoming, that is ONE.  Yet, it is a myth and a mirage.

Because people buy the Daily Mail. They watch the Channel 4 documentaries. They buy into the shite they are being fed about foreigners. Foreigners are here, everywhere, taking our jobs, keeping our young folk out of jobs in particular, taking our houses, filling our houses with more of their kind, living the life of riley on our benefits. And they don’t like them. They’d like less of them please.

Oh and don’t think this is about colour, it’s not. Foreigners are loathed, whatever their colour and their presence in communities has become legion, even when it’s patently not.

In the constituency I live in, of over 58,000 voters, there are less than 500 Polish people on the electoral roll.  There are even fewer Latvians and Lithuanians. There is a tiny smattering of people from Slovakia or the Czech Republic; there are more than there used to be from Spain (mostly young) but still tiny numbers. The ones we really need to be scared of, the Romanians and the Bulgarians? Negligible in number, a handful of families at most.

It’s the same with people of African and Asian nationality. Most of the Muslims I met on the doorsteps spoke with Scottish accents – born and bred here to first or second generation immigrant parents.

Yet, the fear, the racism, the otherness was everywhere. Blaming the foreigners has become the easy hit when life feels rubbish, as it all too frequently does for many right now. And essentially, it demonstrates that the establishment is winning. We might just have had confirmation of that with the referendum result, but that’s a large-scale manifestation of the much smaller-scale success of insidiously infiltrating an everyday mindset. The establishment, tiny in numbers but with the largest share of the pie, has everyone else scrapping over their share of the rest. Instead of fighting them for a bigger and fairer share of the pie, we – they – are now fighting each other for crumbs.

And it’s only when you spend time talking to folk outwith your own political bubble, that you realise it.

The question is what are we, as a nation, a country, ONE SCOTLAND don’t forget – going to do about it?

Well, if the two by-election results have failed to focus our complacent minds, perhaps we could recall that UKIP managed to win a European Parliament seat here in Scotland less than six months ago?

I don’t think I’ve ever been so angry at the behaviour of our two main political parties during and after that European election. By behaving as ferrets in a sack, they effectively let UKIP in.  As the results rolled in, activists on both sides – some of them even elected representatives who should know better – reported on social media gleefully when UKIP beat their sworn enemy.  Such was the narrow focus of partisan gaze that people who share much in common on the left of centre of Scottish politics celebrated when a party of the far right beat up their erstwhile opponents.  And few stopped to think what that said about them and the state of our political discourse.

Indeed, it did not appear to occur to anyone broadly on the left of Scottish politics that what might have been healthy and helpful was a united stance by those parties against UKIP.  There would have been very little electoral harm – for any of them – in the SNP, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Greens issuing a joint statement deploring UKIP, all that it stands for and urging the people of Scotland to reject them. But they were all so focused on winning the battle de jour – as ever – to see the bigger picture.

Our mainstream parties seem to be harbouring a wrong-headed belief that UKIP didn’t and won’t take votes from them.  But look at where UKIP did take votes in that European election. It took between 11.7 and 13.6% of the vote in Shetland and Orkney (Liberal Democrat territory), in Highland (Liberal Democrat and SNP) and Moray (SNP). It took between 10.4 and 11.7% in South Ayrshire and Scottish Borders (Conservative), and in Falkirk and West Lothian (Labour/SNP). And it took between 8.8 and 10.4% in Aberdeenshire and Angus (SNP/Conservative), Western Isles and North Ayrshire (SNP/Labour), Argyll and Bute (Liberal Democrat/SNP) and in West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire and Midlothian (largely – still – Labour strongholds).

UKIP polled strongest in local authority areas right across the Yes/No divide and in areas where there are traditional heartlands for all the mainstream parties. There is less of a discernible pattern in Scotland than in England in terms of the type of vote and voter. UKIP is taking protest votes from left-leaning constituencies just as much as it is from right-leaning, from rural and urban areas.  If there is a trend at all, it is that they appealed to the marginalised and those who feel marginalised. The common denominator was otherness: either because those who voted UKIP don’t like Europe or because they think immigration policy is too lax or because they are feeling the pain of austerity or because none of the parties speaks their language any more.

And while we might congratulate ourselves here in Scotland that we have contained the UKIP presence to a much smaller vote share, such complacency and appeasement is dangerous.  UKIP has an appeal in Scotland and the worst of it is, apart from the occasional foray North by Farage, it hasn’t even really tried hard here.

So let’s stop pretending it’s their problem, not ours. And let’s start having a grown up conversation with ourselves. And let’s start challenging our parties to talk about the racism in our midst, in homes and communities everywhere. And not just to talk about it, but about the conditions which foment to allow it to exist. And let’s start tackling those. Together.

Because if we don’t, then by-election results like  Clacton and Heywood could be coming to SNP and Labour constituencies near us.






Autumn signals politics as usual

Apparently, the Liberal Democrats are still here. Holding their annual conference in Glasgow, this will be their 4th? 5th? day of deliberations.  What on earth have they found to talk about?  How have they managed to find enough delegates to keep it all going?  As images taken on Saturday showed, Women for Independence managed to muster far more women for its event in Perth on Saturday than found their way into the Lib Dem conference hall.

Nick Clegg has already spoken, but he is speaking again.  Oh goody.  This time, he’s talking about mental health provision in the health service, which is a fitting topic worthy of a wider airing.  But as it’s not relevant to a UK wide audience and pertinent only to English voters, you wonder why he couldn’t find a headline subject for his big conference set-piece that mattered to us all.

Perhaps they’ve given up on trying to win Scottish seats at next year’s UK election?  Or maybe they think they are in the bag and holding on to their largely marginal bolt-holes down south has to be the focus. Whatever, they’re proving their obsolescence in Scottish politics all by themselves.

Elsewhere, in the Scottish arena, the day is dominated by Scottish Labour’s call for the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill to go. The party claims that he has presided over a series of crises in Scottish policing, the latest resulting in a climb down over the routine arming of police on our streets.  The Scottish Government responds with a well thought out cry of rubbish, pointing to MacAskill’s wider track record: crime rates at a 20 year low and record numbers of police employed. Am I the only one to suspect they doth protest just a little too vociferously for the Justice Secretary’s comfort?

The Lib Dems and Tories look set to support Labour’s motion and depending on what the Greens and Independent (formerly SNP) MSPs do with their votes, this could be a tight one.  I’m not sure the left-leaning John Wilson, human rights-focused Jean Urquhart and former Secretary General of the Police Federation, John Finnie can be relied upon to vote for the Justice Secretary but I’m not sure they’ll want to hand the scalp of a Scottish Government minister to the opposition either.

Elsewhere, the franchise for the East coast rail line appears to have been awarded to – shock, horror – foreigners.  This has prompted Laboury types to call for re-nationalisation of the railways or at least, such contracts going to Scottish companies.  This is political chancery at its worst (or best, depending on your viewpoint) given that the ability to do either is somewhat constrained by the constitutional set-up which does not give us powers to fix things like this.  A settlement which Labour was campaigning to keep, only a few short weeks ago.  Natch.

Practically, it will make little difference to the staff in the short term, whose jobs will all transfer to the new franchise holder but that means little in the long term for conditions of employment.  We can expect the RMT to be busy.  Personally, if we cannae have some sort of public ownership of our railway provision (and I’m not sure the old large state model is appropriate in the 21st Century but there are other, not-for-profit alternatives available) then maybe an injection of European efficiency could be a good thing.  I’ve been on Dutch trains:  they’re a darn sight better than ours.

Tomorrow, we get the draft Scottish budget – the first to incorporate some of the new powers wished upon us by Unionists through the Calman Commission.  What difference will landfill tax make to our public purse?  I doubt it will do much to plug the gap created by the several billion being taken out of the block grant by UK austerity measures.  What will be interesting when the cuts that are a-coming, arrive is where the finger of blame will be pointed, not by the politicians, but by the voting public.

There’s a definite sense of being back to the business of politics as usual.  The round of party conferences, high winds, heavy rain and flooding, and the low-hanging, harvest moon dominating the sky all signal the arrival of autumn.  Yet, there’s an undercurrent too of something not ever being quite the same again.

The enthusiasm of Yes supporting folk for politics and in particular, politicking in the community shows no sign of abating; there’s an intriguing deputy leadership debate unfolding in the SNP; each day that passes, the Unionists’ vow seems to offer less of the wow folk were looking for.  The high and the low politics is definitely where all the interesting people are to be found.  The jam in the middle that is spread by Holyrood seems rather thin and unappetising for the moment.

Yet, here too, there are hints of change to come.  Nicola Sturgeon will be setting out her stall as First Minister either before or just after the festive break. Johann Lamont’s backroom team is getting a shake-up with a change of personnel but every time she protests she’s going nowhere suggests even she is beginning not to believe she has staying power.  Ruth Davidson will bask in the glow of approval from Mr and Mrs Cameron a while longer but that won’t necessarily win her party more votes in Scotland next year.

Underneath it all remain big, thorny political issues.  The STV Appeal this week will see a renewed focus on child poverty – expect the politicians to have plenty to add.  Maybe they could all just read this report, out today, about what consigning 1 in 4 of our children to poverty actually means to their life chances. Maybe, we could have a debate on this in Parliament?  Maybe, we could have debates too in every council chamber?  And maybe, we could have politicians uniting to find the solutions, to apply their collective will to put resources in – real resources – to addressing the causes and symptoms of lack and blight in children’s lives.  Or agree to devolve the powers to Scotland that give us a real chance – a fighting chance – of doing different from Westminster, for all our children’s sakes.   A girl can dream. Still.

Aye, we live in interesting political times.  Tumultuous even.  It’s just a shame that one of Scotland’s finest political journalists, Angus MacLeod, is no longer here, with his quizzically owl-ish stare, to help prise them apart, to find the story beneath, to document what was really going on, to unspin the narrative, to apply his trademark wry analysis and humour to it all.  A big shame indeed.