Forget values or policies - if you're a woman, getting selected as a parliamentary candidate is all about the hair

Sally Gimson, who is seeking selection as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, shares a few thoughts from the campaign trail.

I have been obsessed for the past few weeks with the selection of Labour’s next parliamentary candidate in Hampstead and Kilburn. Glenda Jackson will be standing down in 2015, the all-women shortlist has been whittled down to the last three of whom I am one, and the hustings and decisive vote are on Sunday, which also happens to be Bastille Day. In case you are wondering, this is a selection Unite has decided to sit out. Hampstead and Kilburn has a large and independent-minded membership, about 900 strong, which makes the outcome horribly unpredictable. As a candidate, the election is about mobilising your friends, holding a fund-raiser and spending every day knocking on members’ doors, ringing them up, sending them emails and leaflets until they are sick to death of the lot of us. And then giving a knock-out speech at the hustings. It is costly in both time and money, which is why candidates always try for union backing because that is one of the few sources of help if you are not independently wealthy. I am proud to be endorsed by Aslef. One forgets though that politics was always for some people a hand-to-mouth business, and can be the worse for not being so. Clement Attlee had lots of jobs before he became an MP, working for charities, as secretary to Beatrice Webb and to Toynbee Hall, and serving at Gallipoli, where he was the last but one man out of Suvla Bay. Disraeli was scandalously in debt.

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What I detest most about the current bunch of Tories is that they have encouraged and indeed see nothing wrong in a global oligarchy which is floating away from the rest of us. These people do not pay taxes and have their businesses registered off shore. This is the case for many of the businesses now taking over public services. Neither these firms nor their bosses have any  real stake in Britain. They don’t care about public services and are interested in pushing down wages across the board. Moreover they use expensive lawyers to close down any legal challenge to their position, while  the Tories and LibDems have abolished much legal aid which would help the less well-off  challenge them. It is inherently unfair and a Labour Government will have to pass bold legislation to stop it.

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Out canvassing, I find myself meeting everyone from young management consultants, pragmatic Labour as one might call them, who have spent their adult life in Blair’s Britain and are passionately interested in how you obtain social justice within a global capitalist system, to the romantic old literary left in Hampstead, poets and artists who have seen the world change beneath their feet. Their reference points are Attlee and post-war Labour governments and they make the necessary connection to Labour’s intellectual socialist foundations.
 

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Meanwhile a significant part of the electorate live on the council estates in Kilburn. These people most need a Labour MP and a Labour government to stand up for them, but very few of them are Labour members. Nor indeed are most of them unionised. They are stuck on very low pay, going in and out of unstable work, sometimes disabled and heavily reliant on benefits. With the Government’s cuts and changes to benefits they are all too easily forced into the hands of loan sharks and many may end up being forced out of London. As lawyer on the Kilburn High Road reminded me Labour in the 1970s was instrumental in setting up law centres, and legal firms up and down the High Road offered free advice. That has all but gone now. The Citizens Advice Bureau also moves out this summer.

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My husband, Andrew, has been the subject of a certain amount of speculation. Does the fact he’s a bit of a Tory make any difference? With a majority of only 42 in a three-way marginal I hope it might be an advantage to be able to pick off supporters of the other side. This is the letter he wrote to the Camden New Journal:

In your admirably even-handed account of the candidates to succeed Glenda Jackson, you suggest people might think it a drawback for Sally Gimson to be married to me. So I would like to reassure any of your readers who may be worried about this that although I have Tory tendencies, I have been unable, in the last 21 years, to change a single one of Sally’s political opinions.
 

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I haven’t yet managed to meet Emma Thompson, another famous member, who is a prominent campaigner against the third runway at Heathrow. Alan Davies, the comedian, has come to several events, behaved charmingly and seems genuinely enthusiastic about choosing the next parliamentary candidate. I do wonder whether the whole process might not make for a one-minute comedy sketch and he is just gathering material.
 

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My preoccupation with politics means the house has become a bit of a mess. When a professor friend arrived to stay from America she had to get our younger daughter to take her shopping for supper.  I get occasional texts from our son’s school saying he has not done his geography homework. The 11-year-old is acting more like a flatmate than a daughter, the kind of flatmate who labels the milk, keeps their room immaculate and gives you disapproving stares when your friends come round. And the 17-year-old . . . I can’t tell you about the 17-year-old because that would embarrass her. Suffice to say that seeing her parents’ rackety lifestyle of journalism and politics is making her more determined to have a proper job as a doctor.
 

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My biggest, if somewhat disillusioning, discovery is that it is really all about the hair. Forget values or policies, one of the essentials for being a woman MP or parliamentary candidate is the hair. Get up close to Harriet Harman’s hair and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a work of art: the different subtle colours, the smoothness. And Rachel Reeves’s hair, dark, shiny and immaculate. Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher used to have their hair done every day. Even when Mo Mowlam didn’t have any hair, she still used her wig to her advantage. For the first time in my life, I have invested in a proper hair dryer, but I am not sure this is enough.

Sally Gimson is a Labour councillor for Highgate, Camden and is seeking selection as the Labour parliamentary candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn

You know what to do. Photograph: Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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