A Mormon for President?

Mitt Romney tries to assuage fears about his Mormon faith as rival Mike Huckabee gains ground among

“You, sir, are an apostate!” So went my first media introduction to Mitt Romney – delivered as a question (well, statement really) in one of his early media appearances when he was getting his campaign going. It seemed to be a bad portend for his attempt to seek the highest office in the land.

Having avoided the question for so long, the former Massachusetts Governor and CEO of Bain & Company, finally caved on Thursday and delivered a speech seeking to address his Mormon beliefs.

The reason for this decision? The rather sudden ascent in early primary polls of former Arkansas Governor and ordained Baptist Minister Mike Huckabee, a self-styled “Christian Leader,” whose emphasis on religion in advertising has been widely seen as a direct appeal to the Christian conservative constituency of the Republican Party. For these undecided Republican primary voters, the idea of voting for a Mormon holds little appeal, almost as little as it does voting for a divorcee (Rudy Giuliani, amongst his many problems) or the increasingly lacklustre John McCain or Fred Thompson. Mike Huckabee’s corny humour and endorsement from Chuck Norris on the other hand appears to be gaining some traction amongst the 40% Iowa Republican caucus voters who identify themselves as “Christian Conservatives.”

To counter this looming storm, Governor Romney decided to have a “JFK moment” – bringing to mind as it did the famous speech that then-Senator Kennedy made in 1960 in which he repudiated those who had attacked him for his Catholicism – Mitt the Mormon stood up and assured the public “that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.”

Instead, Governor Romney emphasised his piety and the importance he placed on religion in America, to counter “those that are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism.” To a European audience, brought up on a rigid diet of separation of church and state, these words are surprising to say the least, and Governor Romney even took time to point out our religious vacuity stating he had “visited many of the magnificent cathedrals in Europe. They are so inspired.....so grand....so empty.”

Still, this was not a speech aimed at Europe, rather it was aimed at an American audience, and rather specifically at a deeply religious constituency within the United States – the Christian right. It is a historical fact that Karl Rove managed to mobilize them and secure a double election victory for President Bush, and reaching out to them was what Governor Romney’s appeal was all about.

The Church of Latter Day Saints is (by some counts) America’s fastest growing religion, numbering some 6 million nationwide. Founded by the rather forgettably named Joseph Smith in the 1820s, Mormons follow a set of beliefs that were handed down to Smith in the form of golden plates that he translated with the assistance of angels. This made up the Book of Mormon, that denote the articles of faith by which Mormons live (rather than go into detail about what exactly Mormons believe, here is an excellent Q & A).

The first thing most American’s will say about Mormon’s is that they practice polygamy. This is not actually true anymore; the religion has long banned the practice, though fundamentalists continue to pop up in some of the more obscure parts of the mid-West. However, it is emblematic of a feeling among Americans, as indicated by one CBS poll in June 2006 that showed that 43% of respondents would not vote for a Mormon.

The problem is that unlike President Kennedy who was defending himself from the accusation that he was under the influence of foreign prelates (the Catholic Pope); Governor Romney is defending his membership of what many Americans see as basically a weird cult. A cult whose beliefs dance closely to the Christianity that most of them practice, and yet worships as a prophet a man who had visions that Jesus was going to come back and establish his kingdom on earth in America, practiced polygamy, and led a group of early settlers in open conflict against the then-government.

Ultimately, the religious question is not, however, aimed at most Americans, but rather specifically at Republican primary voters. Hence Governor Romney’s decision to take the line that he is a pious man, who simply happens to have a slightly different belief structure. The Republican base, as indicated before, has a substantial and powerful religious constituency, whose stridency has all the potential to overwhelm most other issues.

So for Governor Romney, the sudden appearance of a seemingly viable candidate who is able to appeal directly to this group, presents a genuine threat. Or does it? The truth is that Governor Huckabee’s campaign remains infant in comparison to any of the other top tier contenders. While he may have had a slight upswing now, his national profile remains volatile (his current surge is mostly due to his novelty factor in a campaign that has been dragging on for a year now), and he has no-where near the financial war chest that Governor Romney boasts (whose personal wealth has been placed at a cool $250 million). This is important, as even if he is able to do well in some of the early polls, Governor Huckabee lacks the political infrastructure to be able to necessarily effectively capitalize upon it in subsequent primary races.

The problem for Romney, however, is that for him the primaries count a lot. He has purposely invested a lot in the early primary states on the assumption that he could use the momentum to carry him through to the nomination. A dent too early might sink him and let someone like John McCain catch up.

Arguably, for the rest of the world, all this matters little. Even if Governor Romney overcomes the “apostate” brand and wins the nomination, he faces an uphill battle in convincing America that they need another religiously inspired Republican in charge. Still, one discounts the power of the Republican mid-West at one’s peril – their ability to mobilize on polling day is in stark contrast to apathetic Democratic voters. Whether they would do this for a Mormon, however, is another matter altogether.

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

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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