Meet the arrestables

I’m getting used to the jet-set life of a Green politician. This weekend it was the National Express

I’m getting used to the jet-set life of a Green politician. This weekend it was the National Express up to Scotland to protest at the Faslane naval base against the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear missile system.

After a very short night’s sleep in Edinburgh, our group from the English and Welsh Greens set off at 4am on the Sunday with members of the Scottish Green Party, including Mark Ballard MSP. After picking up more people and another MSP in Glasgow, we arrived just before dawn near the base, which sits at the top of a spectacular sea loch on the west coast of Scotland.

We made on foot for the south gate of the base, which is easiest to block as it lies at the end of a narrow road running along the edge of the loch. There we found two friendly policemen - it turned out that on Sundays the South gate isn’t actually used so, after a short picnic breakfast, we set off again for the North gate, which is next to a busy roundabout.

Unfurling our banners - one 6 metres long - we arranged ourselves dressed in black into the vague shape of a nuclear submarine in front of the entrance to the base. True to the rumours we had heard, the Scottish police were very nice and tolerated this for a while, before sending their friendliest officer to warn us we would be arrested if we didn’t move out of the way. A few delaying tactics disguised as meetings between the organisers later, all of us not keen to spend 24 hours in a Glasgow jail moved aside, leaving our ‘arrestables’ (some very charming women) sitting in the road.

This remained the situation for the rest of the day. We lost count of the number of times the police gave our ladies their absolute final warnings, but they never carried out their promise to take them away, instead steering the base traffic carefully around them. So we kept them supplied with tea and cakes and settled down to enjoy the convivial atmosphere that has developed around the base since the start of the campaign on 1st October.

After a few hours about 30 young Finns and Swedes joined us, bringing more cakes, as well as hula-hoops and footballs to play with and a book of rock song lyrics which they had doctored on the ferry to produce a range of funky peace songs. The Scandinavians were due to blockade the following day - likely to be a bit more lively being a Monday. Later on, a group of Quakers arrived at the other side of the road to hold a meeting, which several of our group joined and more Glasgow Greens turned up with a big tub of soup for us all.

Other visitors included Angie Zelter, the instigator of the Faslane 365 campaign, who came down from the permanent peace camp up the road and filled us in on progress so far. Arrests have varied on different days (clearly the Green Party isn’t seen as a serious threat) – with a total of 118 people taken into custody, all of whom have been warned but not charged. Entry to the base has been seriously disrupted on 12 of the 16 days so far.

Angie set up Faslane 365 this year to apply pressure for the disarmament of our current nuclear missiles and to raise opposition to a replacement for Trident – a decision on which is likely to be taken by the government early in 2007.

This isn’t your usual issue of right versus wrong, or even of ‘real world’ practicalities versus ‘nice idea’ moral imperatives. The groups taking part in Faslane 365 are, in fact, enforcing the law. The UK is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which we have promised to negotiate in good faith towards nuclear disarmament. With North Korea’s exit from the NPT and development of nuclear weapons, and with the current scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear power programme, it is more important than ever that we stick to both the letter and the spirit of our commitments.

By keeping Trident and planning a replacement, the government is failing to do this in two ways, hence our slogan, ‘What part of non-proliferation don’t you understand?’ (and hence the 6m length of the banner!).

Greens will be back at Faslane over the next few months with other blockading groups. These groups are an eclectic mix, ranging from clowns to Nobel Peace Prize recipients, and including authors, musicians, elected representatives and geographically based groups of campaigners from across the UK and Europe.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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