Nae man can tether time nor tide

Yesterday I met a redoutable 87 year old woman who was the primary carer of her 90 year old husband of 63 years. We chatted about the weather and her garden before getting down to business. Which party does she normally identify with?  That would be Labour. She and her husband had voted Labour all their days, and voted No in the referendum, despite the exhortations of her Yes-daft “laddie” (he’s in his fifties). And who would she be voting for in the UK election in May? That would be the SNP. Or not exactly the SNP but “thon wee lassie”. She meant Nicola Sturgeon.

She had never been a fan of “him” she said but this lassie was of different mettle and there was a lot to like. She’s shaking things up a bit and with her in charge, the SNP will shake up a whole lot more, down there and here. We need things all shook up, she reckoned. And I like how she’s putting women first, she said.

Anyone wondering what difference Nicola Sturgeon has made in the early days of her leadership of her party and of Scotland, that’s it there in a nutshell. For every person opting positively to choose the SNP over Labour in this Westminster election, there is a minority – a significant minority, I’d hazard – who have been attracted to the SNP and what it stands for because of its leader and what she stands for. They like what they’ve heard so far and it shows in the polls too.

Most still show a continued gender gap among those who intend to vote SNP in May (such as in this Survation poll for Unison Scotland), but some show that gap having narrowed considerably (the most recent YouGov Scottish poll).

The First Minister has made no secret of her desire to deliver equality for women in Scotland. Her argument – that if you are good enough and work hard enough, being a woman should be no barrier to achieving success at work and in life – is the most explicit commitment made by any party leader in post-devolution Scotland to creating a fairer, better society for women. Implicit in her approach is the need to remove any barriers and plenty still exist.

Not least within her own party. Which explains the resolutions on the agenda for debate at the party’s Spring conference next weekend to create formal mechanisms to ensure a higher number of women candidates standing for the SNP and more of them elected.

I should declare an interest here – I’ve been a longtime proponent within the SNP of positive discrimination measures. The last time the party debated it (in 1998 I think), I was on the pro side of zipping male and female candidates on the regional list selections. That debate for me was characterised by the number of bright, young women speaking against the idea, adamant that they would get there under their own steam, thanks very much. Only one of them ever did.

So bravo for the new party leadership (and I include in this the NEC) for bringing the issue back for further, long overdue debate. This time, I hope the measures win the day.

Last time round, such is the contrary nature of the SNP membership, it more or less zipped anyway with a significant number of women elected to the Scottish Parliament. But without the issue being kept in focus, the numbers slipped. And have never been anything like balanced, let alone equal, for Westminster and local election selections.

As ever, there will be opposition. The same old, tired old arguments will be trotted out. It should be the best candidate who gets selected – which assumes that is usually a man – and there will no doubt be a coterie of women who shore that up by insisting on the right to do it for themselves, not wanting – ever – to feel they were chosen just because they are a woman.  It won’t be until they are rejected as a candidate precisely because they are a woman that they will get it.

The party can rightly point to the progress made in recent times. There are more women than ever before selected for Westminster seats and that’s testament not just to the formidable talent in the ranks of approved candidates but also to the willingness of local party organisations to select the best person to represent them in their constituencies in this contest.  But women still make up under 40% of the total candidates standing for Westminster and it will only be if we get into landslide territory on May 7th that signiificant numbers of them will be elected.

More women have joined the SNP creating a much more balanced membership; it has a 50-50 Cabinet; it has committed to changing the face of public boards and is encouraging private sector and charitable ones to do the same. All of this has come about – partly – because it has a female leader, because of what the party now stands for under her leadership and the policies it espouses.

A breakthrough was signalled at last party conference, when despite fierce opposition, a resolution was passed on gender balance in public life. I sat at home watching it all unfold and cried buckets at the conclusion, for it represented such a milestone.

Next Saturday, the SNP has the chance to show that it’s not just its leader who has mettle. That this is a party in tune with the mood abroad, prepared to lead on changing the nature of society by beginning with reforming its own structures. Before voting on this vital resolution and all the amendments, delegates should pause and consider where Scotland stands, what their party – and especially, their leader – stand for and where she and they want to lead their country to.

The SNP is at a juncture – is it thirled to it (and Scotland’s) past, stuck in the present or focussed on the future and creating a different party (and country) for the next generation to inherit? After all, a better, fairer society for all means exactly that, in all structures and circumstances.

To coin a phrase, moments like this in party histories are like “poppies spread”. They can choose to “seize the flower” before “its bloom is shed”.  And in doing so, delegates might want to remember that “nae man can tether time nor tide”.


In truth, it wasn’t the magenta bus that bothered me. I might not have chosen to sally forth in an emblazoned, bright pink people carrier, but actually, Labour’s initiative to engage woman-o to woman-o in the general election isn’t the worst idea they’ve ever had. After all, they pinched it from Women for Independence.

Getting out and engaging women in spaces they feel comfortable in is something Women for Indy’s thousands of female supporters did to considerable effect during the referendum campaign. Here in Edinburgh, we did school gates, drop-ins in cafes, at homes, wee socials and my favourite, outside bingo halls (with Yes bingo dabbers, no less) because we went to where women were, rather than expect them to come to us.

My problem with the wheeze was it being styled as the “kitchen table” tour. Why? According to Lucy Powell, one of its shiny, bright young things in its election team, Labour was taking its message [to] women voters because “they wanted to have a conversation about the kitchen table, around the kitchen table” rather than “having an economy that just reaches the boardroom”. Shades of eat your cereal all round.

Suddenly, those shots of Ed and Justine in their kitchen make sense.

Ed and Justine in the “kitchen”

Except as we now know, it wasn’t their kitchen.  It was the second kitchen, the one off the living room where tea and snacks are prepared. But take a close look.  Does this look like any kitchen or even, snack-preparation-area you know?  Where’s the clutter?  The personality?  The photos of family, the letters from school, the fruit bowl?  There’s not even a half-full laundry basket, never mind an actual kitchen table.

As an attempt to portray Ed as just a regular family guy, it fails miserably. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. He looks like he never even knew the room existed (as it might not).  And who has two kitchens in their house anyway?

That’ll be a man who lives in a great big pile in a des res part of London, far from where his constituency is, incidentally, in scandal-laden Doncaster (one of the increasing number of longstanding Labour councils up north with serious issues in terms of its track record on protecting children).

I read the big, glossy interview with Ed in that week’s Guardian, where he was shadowed by a reporter around the country.  I read it twice, in fact, keen to glean details that might bring me to like the man.  I left disliking him more than ever.

And the only conclusion I can reach is that the man is a phoney.  A professional politician who has spent all his adult life in the Westminster bubble preparing for power. All that empathising with the audience, using first names?  A longstanding technique which can be learned. It’s well documented that his brother did so. He posited soundbites – I worry about not seeing my kids enough (who were otherwise largely absent from the piece); stamina being a challenge, but with twisted logic, relishing the 16 hour days – and if it was all to make him seem human, well, bits did, but the overall impression was of a team crafting a set piece for the delectation of the intellectual Left. I found it curious that the tour didn’t bother to call in on his constituency: does he go there at all, or is it just a place to weigh the votes?

But I got no sense of a man with a plan, other than to get to Number 10. He may be willing to stand up to vested interests. In fact, I applaud him for doing so, but will he as a Prime Minister un-vest them?  I think not.  The Milibands’ wee turn on the inheritance of the family home might not be tax avoidance on the scale that attracts headlines, but it still smacks of the entitled few entitling themselves in a way the rest of us can’t.

No, Ed Miliband is establishment Labour personified.  And if voters elsewhere aren’t turned off by the prospect of him and his party leading us, then here in Scotland, the electorate is making clear what it thinks.  They are turning away in their droves, because they have a better, more grounded, more real alternative to vote for.

Kitchen-gate speaks to all of this and exposes the “kitchen table” tour in all its condescending gory.  As our own First Minister is demonstrating, women are more than capable of dealing with the economy as an issue at boardroom level.  They are not just concerned with economics as they affect what they put on their kitchen table, but with how the state of our nation’s finances impact on everyone’s prospects, especially future generations.

What these gimmicks suggest is that Labour is the modern day equivalent of the Wizard of Oz.  For sure, there is a man behind the curtain, pulling levers, wowing the headline writers and the news makers – think Jim Murphy here – but take a peek and the charade is exposed.  There is no substance.  No one knows what Labour stands for, as I have written ad nauseum on this blog for years now.

The Labour President of COSLA, Councillor David O’Neill, tries to resurrect Johann Lamont’s “something for nothing” narrative which castigates universalism, only to be slapped down almost before he’s finished his speech by Jim Murphy, who restates Scottish Labour’s recent re-conversion to many of the policies it introduced while in government in the first place.

Rachel Reeves, Labour’s work and pensions spokesperson, gets herself in a total fankle trying to explain what Labour would do about the rise of foodbanks if in power. “Labour are a party of working people, formed by and for working people”. Helpfully, Kate Green MP took to Twitter to interpret her remarks, differently from how John McTernan, now installed in Jim Murphy’s team, did so.

If Labour doesn’t know what it stands for, how can the rest of us?  If Labour doesn’t say what it means clearly, or mean what it say, why should voters believe it and trust it with their votes? Meaningless gestures like “kitchen table” tours and toe-curling photo opps in empty, colourless rooms pretending to be the heart of the home expose all of Labour woes.

Whether it’s a kitchen, dining or coffee table, Labour has nothing to put on it but gloss.



Beware the polls of March

While there has always been tension within the Scottish Labour party about how and where to target resources during elections, never have we enjoyed such a ringside seat to the internal drama. Such is the panic in their breasties that it’s all being played out publicly for our delectation. It makes for a very bad farce. Or even a Greek tragedy.

This weekend, we’ve had unnamed sources calling for the West of Scotland and Glasgow, those previous citadels of Labour electoral dominance, to be abandoned in favour of seats that can still be saved in the East of Scotland. Then there’s been the criticism of the amount of support going into Margaret Curran’s Glasgow East constituency at the expense of others. Finally, some have questioned how it was worked out which seats would benefit from £1,000 of Blair’s filthy lucre, while some of the beneficiaries appear to have tried and failed to not accept the donation.

Every day provides another round of apparent Labour in-fighting. And there’s still weeks to go to polling day. For observers and commentators, and hard pressed and harried political journalists everywhere, this is, as the saying goes, the gift that will keep on giving.

For the SNP, well do they even have to turn up?  What need is there of a campaign when Labour is managing to dig its own political grave, with little help from any of the other parties? I’ve taken to listening to BBC Question Time on the radio: it’s a much more edifying and interesting experience. Tuning into last week’s show, never in all my days have I heard an audience in Scotland so hostile to the Labour party; poor Kezia Dugdale couldn’t even finish a sentence before being shouted down or eliciting collective disapproval or worst of all, the audience guffawing. In Glasgow.

And setting the mood music are all those polls: doesn’t matter who runs them, the numbers are largely similar. The SNP is in unprecedented territory for a Westminster election, Labour is in freefall, the Conservatives are static and the Liberal Democrats are finished as a political entity.

Everything – every nuance, detail and scrap of information at macro and micro political level – suggests that something huge is going to happen on Thursday 7 May in Scotland. The SNP is going to win, Labour is going to lose. It’s going to be massive.

And yet.

Call me Cassandra but some caution is required.

I worry that those leading the SNP campaign are not quite managing to contain their glee and successfully play down expectations.  “We’re taking nothing for granted” is not the same as “the only poll that counts is the one on election day and there are a lot of votes out there yet to be won”.

What if what the polls are predicting doesn’t quite come to pass?  What if Labour manages to narrow the gap by even just 5%? How would a gain of say 20+ seats, taking the SNP’s tally to a remarkable 30 look like a loss because the 50 seat total predicted by these wild February and March polls did not in the end materialise? That’ll be the mainstream media’s role.

Suddenly, Jim Murphy looks like a miracle worker and his party didn’t do as badly as predicted. The surge towards the SNP was a mirage, momentum has halted and it is portrayed as having lost the General Election, putting the party on the back foot right at the start of its campaign for 2016. Headlines abound like “Can Jim Murphy build on this to regain lost ground in 2016?” “Is the end nigh for the SNP?” “Is this the high point for the SNP’s electoral fortunes?” “Is it all downhill from here?”

So, I – and I know I’m not alone – would feel a lot more comfortable if the SNP was talking down the polling, as well as working away on the ground to turn opinion into fact.

Because it is not entirely clear that the polls will translate into results – and given the providence of some of the pollsters, we need to beware their March polls.

There is no such thing as a uniform shift as predicted by the headline, aggregated results in all the polls, as discovered by any activitists this weekend who were out in No voting constituencies in the referendum and in particular, those better off areas which did indeed vote No in considerable numbers. Clearly, people can only provide anecdotal snapshots but what they found on the ground is at least a live possibility of the beginnings of an anti-SNP tactival voting alliance among those whose antipathy to the SNP is all-consuming. In short, those who voted No might well be considering holding their noses to vote for another party to thwart the SNP’s landslide.

There are clues too below the headlines. Let’s look at the Ashcroft poll in the 14 Labour held constituencies which voted yes, in which a swing to the SNP of over 25% was predicted. Taken together, the polling results suggest that 37% of people intend to vote SNP compared to only 27% Labour. There is little difference between men and women, though Ashcroft suggests a much closer split among women with only 33% saying they will vote SNP compared to 29% for Labour. Taking socio-economic data, the SNP appears to enjoy a lead across all groups, including a remarkable 16% gap among AB voters, narrowing to only a 1% lead among DE voters.

But the most interesting breakdown relates to age. There is no doubt that the SNP enjoys astonishing levels of support among younger voters. The gap is around 20% for everyone aged 18 to 44 – that’s a huge chunk of the potential voting population in May. But we all know who actually can be relied upon to turn out and vote, whatever the weather and largely, whatever the election and among older voters, the gap narrows. In Ashcroft’s poll across 14 Labour seats in Yes voting areas, the SNP only leads by 5% among 55 to 64 year old voters. Among the over 65s, Labour still enjoys majority support, with 39% of those voters intending to stick with Labour compared to the 22% preparing to twist with the SNP.

And in that one statistic lies the seed of my disquiet. Everyone enjoying poll leads in the stratosphere would do well to check this one out.  It would seem the pensioners are still not shifting and just as their intransigence was a key factor in the outcome of the referendum, they may well yet decide the outcome of this historic election.

In short, all those pensioners opting to stay with what they know might cause Labour-held constituency dominoes to wobble but not fall down.  Which could well result in a quite different overall result to this Westminster election. And then what happens?