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”.

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Beware the snollygosters

It would appear there is an election in the offing. Voters might think it’s someway away, but not the parties.

Despite those astonishing Ashcroft and YouGov polls suggesting that it’s operation wipeout, Nicola Sturgeon hit the campaign trail in Glasgow yesterday, calling on her not insignificant pool of 93,000 potential activists, to chap every door between now and polling day. She’s right to take nothing for granted and her party would do well to heed the call: there might well be work to be done.

After all, there is truth in the cliché that the only poll that matters is the one on the day. And here’s Jim Murphy making a virtue out of hard work, cancelling any plans his MSPs might have had for a week half-term break, telling them all to get out and campaign like the election was a week to go. At least, he’s now admitting his party is in trouble, big trouble.

Both teams were out in my patch yesterday, but no sign of the Lib Dems in what is still a Liberal Democrat seat. That might be because they’re targeting a different demographic of voters in this constituency. With only 12 weeks to go, targeting resources, energy and time at the right groups of voters is key. Basically, Labour and the SNP are after the same ones.

I was surprised just how many times I was asked how I would appeal to this type of voter or that in my crash-and-burn attempt to become a candidate – it’s okay, there will be no gnashing and wailing, I’m nearly over myself.  To me, it’s self-evident where the SNP has to go to win seats all across the central belt. Indeed, the polls are like a great big X marking the spot: to the once staunch Labour vote must they go. Yes, the Lib Dem vote has collapsed in these same constituencies but think on this – it was never huge to begin with, except in one or two areas, nor is it so easy to track down in geographical or community terms.

Still not convinced? Well, why do you think Jim Murphy’s targeted campaign strategy is to prevent 190,000 Labour voters who voted Yes becoming SNP voters? This is the battleground where all those seats on those ginormous projected swings will stand or fall. And it’s vital that the SNP in its local domains gets this and focuses all its attention on those voters.

Because in those last few vital days of the independence referendum, whisper it, but the other lot had a better get out the vote strategy than we did. The No camp shifted to identified core vote and what’s known as knocking it up, far earlier than Yes did.  At the time, I thought this a weakness, a sign that undecideds who had been edging up the scale towards a Yes were now ours and that Better Together had given up on persuading them. Yet, the fact we were still out there trying to persuade them was the issue. The No camp had done enough to slow the snowball hurtling down the mountainside throughout September gathering momentum towards yes and actually halted it before it subsumed everything in its wake. As in all other referenda, a majority of those still umming and awing on the day broke for the status quo.

Here in Edinburgh, No’s get-out-the-vote activity was co-ordinated city-wide and run largely by Labour. It was organised, targeted and focused. And the fact that few of us noticed it at the time means it worked as the stealth operation it was designed to be. Anyone who thinks that it could not be replicated in Glasgow or in the towns all across the M8 corridor needs to think back to the 2012 local government elections. Despite what the polls were saying, Labour dug out a vote and I’m not sure we understand how yet.

Whether or not they will be able to snatch such victory from the jaws of defeat yet again is unclear. When the mood of a nation appears to have turned so decisively, the ability of a tribe – much depleted these days in any event – to descend onto streets en masse at 5pm on polling day and sweep every eligible adult along to vote is no longer a strength but a weakness. Adopting these tactics of old might just help deliver SNP MPs in their bucketload.

Conversely, does the SNP have to do anything other than surf the wave of public opinion? Does it need to know where its vote is going to come from at this election? I’ve often wondered what might happen in a control experiment of a local campaign staying at home – completely at home – to see if all those local leaflets, footslog, A boards and door chapping actually does make a difference, or if it really is all down to national campaigns, narratives, messaging and media dominance.

This though is not the campaign for the SNP to try such experiments. For, despite what the polls are saying, the difference between shaving Labour majorities wafer thin and actually winning the seat will come down to local candidates and campaigns: the SNP might have a shiny team of fantastic people lined up to fight this election, but Labour has its snollygosters.

Twitter introduced me to this new word this week. Apparently, a snollygoster is someone, especially a politician, who is guided by personal advantage rather than consistent, respectable principles. There are good people in the Labour movement – still.  Some of them are even MPs and they are now fighting for their political lives. And all the trappings that go with it. There are few career options out there for former politicians, not in Scotland; certainly, none so lucrative as the sinecure on the green benches. And that aside, what to do when your entire life has been politics, politics and more politics?

Some Scottish Labour MPs will have peered over the abyss and not liked what they see at the bottom. They will by snollygosting for all they are worth for the next twelve weeks and the SNP needs to match them if those poll numbers are to translate into wins.

If I were First Minister…

Oh I know how ridiculous the concept is.  We can agree on that. There are after all, hundreds of reasons why Nicola is and I’m not. I can list more than you can.  But when you’re finished chuckling at the very idea, indulge me.

Because if it was me, I’d kinda have done all that she is doing but I’d be planning more of it. And sometimes a little unwarranted, unsought advice is a good thing.

As the first female First Minister, what to wear and how to look is going to be a thing, no matter how much we want it to be otherwise. So yes, embrace it. Turn it into part of your story, of who you are, what matters to you and how you are going to be. Absolutely champion Scottish designers for clothes and jewellery. Make a point of visiting local shops and crafts when out and about round Scotland. Just don’t do handbags, for obvious reasons.

In fact, become Scotland’s champion in all the things that do matter to you. Turn the role into what you want it to be, think it should be in 21st Century Scotland. Promoting design and local produce could become something you do – pick two of the areas you intend to visit in Scotland in a year, and get Visit Scotland and Scottish Enterprise telt. They should do an expo of all things local for when the Cabinet comes to town. Even better, if some visits could be timed to coincide with local book festivals and you could get to open it or chair something or share your own favourite books or similar. Championing local enterprise, talent and activity while getting to indulge in one of your own passions. You’re allowed to actually enjoy being First Minister, no matter how often the civil servants tell you otherwise.

I’d want to be an accessible First Minister too.  Ra people’s First Minister, that’s what I’d be looking to do. There are things of state that need to be done but get yourself a Depute with whom you can share the stuff that is more duty than pleasure. The Queen has all these Lord Lieutenants littered all over the country. And Deputies. I’d be seeing if some of them couldn’t be more usefully deployed on Scotland duty.

And think about where you do want to spend time and who and how you want to engage with folk. Presenting cups and trophies at sporting fixtures?  Find a Sports Minister who can and will. But pitch up with a wee New Year’s message from the stage of proceedings in Glasgow or Edinburgh. Go to book festivals in the summer. Make a list of what you like doing and tell them that’s what you’d like to be doing, as close to ra people as possible.

Otherwise, keep doing your own tweets. Once a month, walk from Bute House up to St Andrew’s House. Make time to stop and say hello to folk. Once a month too, jump on a bus to do the journey. Get the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh once a month. The security will tell you why you really shouldn’t do it. Tough, it’s their job to figure out how you can do it safely. But also you are entitled to a bit of luxury and some trappings that go with the office. No one (except Paul Hutcheon) expects you to stay in Travel Lodges while you are abroad.  If you are working 18 hour days, you are allowed to have someone drive you home and back again in the morning. And folk to look after you. Running a country is a big job – sell that before the carping starts about what you spend money on or how you do it or spend your time.  Publish your engagements as soon as possible after the fact. Publicise as many as you can beforehand and who is involved and why.

Apparently, you’re not keen on moving into Bute House permanently. Home is after all home. So turn it into ra People’s Palace:  make it accessible and available too. Offer up its facilities on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day for one of the many charities working with homeless people. Do more receptions from it for things you like and want to champion and be open about it.  Get the SpADs to identify a theme day for each month of the year – Mother’s Day (March);  World Aids Day (December); and so on, and turn Bute House into the centre of commemoration, throwing open the doors. And four times a year, fill it with children – an Easter egg hunt;  a Christmas party.  Make sure everyone knows this wee Georgian hoose belongs to them and is shared with the nation.

As for the SpADs, well this is where you have to live the narrative you’re weaving, not just wear it.  If SNP policy now supports 40% of women appointments to boards, then you know what you gotta do. There is a perceived wisdom that no one who wants a life should apply. I’d change that. I’d create a job share part time role for two folk with family or caring responsibilities: their life experience would be well worth it.  And in keeping with the new, even bigger tent approach of the SNP, I’d think about offering a SpAD role to someone outside the SNP.  A Green even. Not that the roles ever were for party folk, it’s just how they’ve been allowed to develop.

The same applies to the Cabinet.  It’s a tough one. You don’t want to tip everyone out for a whole host of reasons but you need to effect enough change to make it your own. To signal even more emphatically that the Salmond Generation has had its time. Apart from yourself of course. But time for you to bring on a new generation of leaders in the SNP by giving them rungs of responsibility. Encourage one or two of the old guard who’ve been warming Cabinet seats since 2007 to jump before pushed.

And of course, 40% women.  I’d also be cultivating a support network of women out there who can be relied upon to have your back when the unnamed sources start their sniping and carping.  As they will.  Because you’re a woman.  And they think that makes you weaker. And fair game. In a way, they’d never dream of doing if it was still Alex Salmond.

You are, after all, entering what has been almost exclusively a man’s world and game.  If it were me, I’d be making the role into what I want it to be, not what I’m told it has to be.

Own it.  Rock it.  Become a 21st Century leader for a 21st Century country.

Just don’t wear those killer heels everyday, you’ll ruin your feet.