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  1. Politics
1 May 2000

The Wendy effect is making its mark

New Statesman Scotland - The Communities Minister, a protegee of Donald Dewar, has come und

By Tom Brown

Wendy Alexander rarely sits, but perches. That and her perky personality give her a little-bird chirpiness that is at odds with the weightiness of her clout as the Scottish Executive’s Communities Minister.

That is the kind of observation which she detests, but which she has to live with. Scotland’s – especially its media’s – fascination with Alexander has focused intensely on her character and her appearance as much as on her policies.

She has just pulled off a master-stroke with a far-reaching plan for “the biggest housing project of its kind in Europe”, which is no less than root-and-branch reform of Scotland’s debt-ridden housing. One of its first consequences is the handover of Glasgow’s 90,000 council houses to a combination of community and private finance control, with a £1.6bn modernisation programme.

Inevitably, however, the Wendy factor has kicked in and (although she begs “Don’t reduce it to the personal fortunes of one politician”) it has been noted that this coup has restored her own fortunes after an unprecedented and highly personalised battering over the repeal of Clause 28.

Wendy Alexander’s first year as a full-time politician has been a baptism of fire, and she has had to grow up fast. No Scottish politician has been so well and truly blooded – and bloodied. Although she had never before held any kind of elected office, she was propelled last year into one of the most sensitive jobs in the new Scottish government.

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Overnight, at 36, she became Scotland’s most powerful female politician and the number one target for that special sourness Scots seem to reserve for female politicians. Fellow ministers and MSPs, journalists and civil servants (especially the notoriously languid breed of Edinburgh panjandrum) talk of being “Wendied”, the sense of drowning in the fast-flowing and seemingly unstoppable gush of ideas, arguments and demands.

One woman writer cattily called her “Snow White in overdrive”; and another has descended to levels of bitchiness that no male journalist would even contemplate. A magnifying mirror has been held up to her diminutive and dimpled appearance, while her mannerisms and engaging lisp have been mercilessly mimicked.

“It doesn’t matter how Wendy Alexander behaves or what she is wearing,” she complains with justification as she tries to focus the argument on The Big Idea of the housing policy. “Comments like these, and about looking like a 15-year-old, would never get made about a man.”

They are certainly not made about her boyish-looking brother Douglas, the MP who is already organising Labour’s general election campaign.

And all that was before she put herself in the firing-line by announcing the repeal in Scotland of Clause 28.

Her over-eagerness to push ahead on several policy fronts has been presented as arrogance, and the failure to prepare the ground on the scrapping of the anti-homosexual law provoked a bitter backlash. She knew it would be controversial and in public she has shrugged off the personal abuse. But asked if she had expected such a violent reaction, she replies “Of course not!” with an explosive vehemence that shows that the wounds are deeper and more raw than she has admitted.

The vilification from the stridently vocal Keep the Clause campaigners became so intensely aimed at Alexander that more hardened senior colleagues such as Donald Dewar and Sam Galbraith, the Education Minister, moved into the front line while she retired to concentrate on other community issues.

She had been working on the housing stock transfer since the 1997 election, when she was special adviser to the then Scottish Secretary, Dewar. Her knowledge of the intractable problems of Glasgow’s housing go back to her childhood, when her minister father led the Iona Community, the Christian Socialist activist arm of the Church of Scotland.

“I have such clear memories of when I was a wee kid growing up in Clyde Street, in the heart of Glasgow, while the tenements around us were being destroyed, and along with them the sense of community,” she recalls.

The replacement concrete multi-storeys running with damp, which had to be blown up, and the sprawling estates left Glasgow with a new problem – overwhelming debt. Just to pay the interest on the city’s historic housing debt burden of £1bn takes 47p of every £1 taken in rent.

Glasgow found itself sucked into a hopeless spiral. The debt per house has increased from £3,220 to £8,896, while the amount needed to make these homes warm and damp-free has doubled to £16,000 per house in the past ten years.

The proposal is to transfer the entire housing stock to a not-for-profit Glasgow Housing Association, with the servicing of the debt transferred to the Scottish Executive. With the debt stripped out, the new association will be able to raise £1.6bn for a city-wide renovation programme that will create 3,500 new jobs.

Scotland’s leading bankers initially said that the scheme was unfundable. The properties they would be lending against are worth £100m – but only £10m with tenants, and a high proportion are dependent on housing benefit to pay the rent. The Bank of Scotland, Royal Bank, Halifax and Nationwide have all now signalled support.

Alexander says: “They will be lending against the rent stream, which is guaranteed.”

The civil servants have had their noses put out by the recruitment of experts from Scottish Homes, the finance sector, property managers, academics and the construction industry.

A fellow minister confided: “She had to. It wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in Hell if she had relied on St Andrew’s House. They hate Glasgow – and they hate real experts being brought in, because they think they know everything.”

Alexander was also more at home with the number-crunchers, money-jugglers and the “don’t give us problems, give us answers” ethos of private project managers.

After spells in the voluntary sector and Labour Party research, she studied public policy at Harvard, took an MBA in Paris and held an £80,000 job with international management consultants before being wooed by Dewar to become his special adviser and minister-in-waiting.

“I’ve brought more of the skills I have acquired into this than any other government project I’ve been involved in,” she agrees.

The plan stands or falls in a ballot of council tenants next year and a well-organised and militant “anti-privatisation” campaign is already on the streets. They are playing on concerns about rent rises, although a five-year cap at inflation level is guaranteed, and warning of “ethnic cleansing” and “middle-class settlers” as council sites are turned over to private builders.

In soundbite style, Alexander dismisses them as “graduates of the naw-naw-naw university, with certificates in cynicism and honours degrees in negativity” who hark back to the Glasgow of James Maxton and John McLean, rent strikes and the 1919 George Square riot.

But she has to admit: “There is a very high level of fear out there. Those who mutter darkly about the perils of privatisation ignore the reality that securing private finance for public purposes has been a reality of housing in Glasgow for decades.”

If the tenants vote against the transfer, it will be a disaster for the Scottish Executive. The housing initiative is the keystone for a programme of community empowerment and social justice which should prove that devolution really works.

Housing associations spawn other community projects, and Alexander plans a fact-finding mission to look at US-style funding of non-profit-making organisations. “One in 20 people in Scotland works for either a charity or a community-based organisation,” she reels off. “They have a turnover of £2bn a year, and less than 2 per cent is loan-funded. Their financing mechanisms are out of the Dark Ages.

“Yet voluntary organisations are just as important social partners as the Scottish TUC or the CBI. The charity sector in Scotland isn’t about Lady Bountifuls, as in England, it’s about people doing things for themselves and their neighbours through lunch clubs, furniture projects, work spaces, food co-operatives.”

It is now possible to see joined-up government and the change in Scotland that might be wrought by the much-criticised Dewar administration. Alexander is no longer on the defensive: “People have been asking ‘What has the Scottish Parliament done for us?’ Well, now we’re making our mark.

“I could happily go off now and have my children knowing I’ve made a contribution.”

Chirpy Wee Wendy maturing into a mother hen? Was that the sound of a biological cluck? Now there’s a surprise. Many people think Wendy Alexander is going to be Scotland’s first woman First Minister. After her first frenetic year at the sharp end, no one should bet against her being both.

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