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SNP deputy Westminster leader Kirsty Blackman: “Parliament needs more millennials”

The SNP's Westminster deputy leader on diversity and filling Angus Robertson's shoes. 

The Scottish National Party might have a famous female leader, but for many years in Westminster, the face of the party was two middle-aged men: Angus Robertson and his deputy leader Stewart Hosie. Then came the 2017 election. Robertson lost his seat, while Hosie had already lost his dignity through an affair with a journalist. And the SNP lost a third of its seats.

The surviving MPs duly elected another middle-aged man, Ian Blackford, as Westminster leader. But for the deputy, they chose Kirsty Blackman, a critic of parliamentary traditions. She made headlines in 2016 after she was censured for bringing her children to a committee hearing, and has used Twitter to share her personal experience of depression. 

“I'm 31,” the MP for Aberdeen North says when we meet in the light-filled atrium of Portcullis House in late June. “I'm quite comfortable being a millennial.” Blackman, who has short, light brown hair and an upbeat style, plans to use her platform to campaign for “a more diverse Parliament so it’s more representative of society”. 

Of the large parties, the SNP has the best record on LGBTQ MPs (20 per cent) and the second best record on gender equality, with women making up a third of MPs. But after the loss of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the Westminster cohort looks glaringly white (Scotland’s black and minority ethnic population stands at 4 per cent). 

Blackman is also interested in another demographic – young people. There are, she notes, few young MPs: “There are not that many of us who are under 35.” (The SNP's Mhairi Black, aged 22 on her re-election, remains the Baby of the House). 

“I don't think that there are huge numbers of people in parliament who've got a real grasp of what it means to be a young person these days – living in precarious housing, having zero-hours contracts,” she says. “And also, I don't think enough people have thought through the consequences of that for the future.”

She cites the housing benefit rule that under-35s may only claim enough to live in a shared house. 

“There are fewer millennial families because people can't afford to have children,” she says. “People in shared properties aren't exactly given the opportunity to create children are they?

“This has a knock-on impact for the economy in the future. It also has a knock-on impact for the NHS in the future because being an older parent means that there are more risks of health problems for both the mother and the children.”

So far as millennials are concerned, she “would love to talk to everybody about this” on a “cross-party basis” or even “a millennial all-party group”. 

Blackman’s focus on millennial needs is refreshing in a political system intent on wooing the grey vote. But how does Blackman square this with the SNP’s enthusiastic campaign, led by the new Westminster leader, to compensate older women who have to wait longer for their pensions? 

“It’s not an either-or,” she says. Rather, “it's about making sure everybody can have a level of protection”. 

For now, though, the focus will be on Prime Minister’s Questions and whether Blackford can command the respect afforded to his predecessor. 

Robertson will be “hugely missed”, Blackman acknowledges.“I think Angus always picked the right question for PMQs,” she says. “His message was always brilliant. He wasn't combative about it. I don't want to say gentle because that's not the right word. He wasn't shouty and fighty. But he's much more measured.”

So will Blackford and Blackman regenerate as Robertson 2.0? “Ian's got his own style, and I've got my own style. When we're speaking, its difficult to reset yourself. I think we'll be what we are.”

The duo will focus on opposing austerity and Brexit. As for independence: “Our mission in Westminster is what it's always been: stand up for the people of Scotland.”

Blackman frames independence as a “choice”, in line with the new tone from Holyrood after an election in which the SNP lost a third of its seats. She is vague about when it could happen: “We'd love to get independence in 2018, or 2019, or 2020, or at some point, so my children can grow up in an independent Scotland.”

For all the Braveheart stereotypes, a crucial part of the Scottish independence movement was the drive to reform and create something new. Blackman’s desire for independence, and her frustration about the stuffiness of parliament, often seem to spring from the same place. “I'm working to work myself out of a job in this place,” she says. “I've no desire to stay here forever.”

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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Want an independent-minded MP? Vote for a career politician

The brutally ambitious are not content to fall in with the crowd. 

“Never having had a ‘real’ job outside of politics”: this is what the majority of respondents told a YouGov poll in 2014 when asked the most undesirable characteristic of the British politician. The result is hardly surprising. Type the words “career politician” into your search engine or raise the topic at a dinner party, and quickly you will be presented with a familiar list of grievances.

One of the fundamental criticisms is that career politicians in parliament are elitists concerned only with furthering their own interests. Their pronounced and self-serving ambition for climbing the ministerial ladder is said to turn them into submissive party-machines, sycophants or yes men and women, leading them to vote loyally with their party in every parliamentary division. But do we actually have evidence for this?

A new in-depth analysis, to be published later this month in the academic journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, presents a forceful challenge to this conventional wisdom. In fact, I find that career politician MPs in the UK are more likely to rebel against their party than their non-career politician peers. Why?

My study was motivated by the observation that the existing impression of the party loyalty of career politicians is based mostly on anecdotal evidence and speculation. Moreover, a look through the relevant journalistic work, as well as the sparse extant academic literature, reveals that the two main hypotheses on the topic make starkly contradictory claims. By far the most popular — but largely unverified — view is that their exclusively professional reliance on politics renders career politicians more brutally ambitious for frontbench office, which in turn makes them especially subservient to the party leadership.

The opposing, but lesser known expectation is that while career politicians may be particularly eager to reach the frontbenches, “many of them are also much too proud and wilful to be content to serve as mere lobby fodder”, as the late Anthony King, one of the shrewdest analysts of British politics, observed nearly thirty years ago on the basis of more qualitative evidence.

Faced with these opposing but equally plausible prognoses, I assembled biographical data for all the MPs of the three big parties between 2005-15 (more than 850) and analysed all parliamentary votes during this period. I followed the debate’s prevalent view that an exclusive focus on politics (e.g. as a special adviser or an MP’s assistant) or a closely-related field (e.g. full-time trade union official or interest group worker) marks an MP as a careerist. In line with previous estimations, just under 20 per cent of MPs were identified as career politicians. The extensive statistical analysis accounted for additional factors that may influence party loyalty, and largely ruled out systematic differences in ideology between career and non-career politicians, as well as party or term-specific differences as drivers of the effects.

As noted above, I find strong evidence that career politician backbenchers are more likely to rebel. The strength of this effect is considerable. For example, amongst government backbenchers who have never held a ministerial post, a non-career politician is estimated to rebel in only about 20 votes per parliament. By contrast, a career politician dissents more than twice as often — a substantial difference considering the high party unity in Westminster.

This finding reveals a striking paradox between the predominantly negative opinion of career politicians on the one hand, and the electorate's growing demand for more independent-minded MPs on the other. In fact career politicians are the ones who perform best in delivering on this demand. Similarly, the results imply that the oft-cited career-related dependency of career politicians on the party can be overridden (or, at the very least, complemented) by their self-image as active and independent-minded participants in the legislative process. This should attenuate the prevalent concern that a rise in career politicians leads to a weakening of parliament’s role as a scrutinizing body.

Finally, the findings challenge the pervasive argument that a lack of experience in the real world disqualifies an MP from contributing meaningfully to the legislative process. Instead, it appears that a pre-parliamentary focus on politics can, under certain circumstances, boost an MP's normatively desirable willingness to challenge the party and the executive.

Raphael Heuwieser is researching political party loyalty at the University of Oxford.