Just before Easter, I spent a few days in Glasgow and the surrounding area looking at one of the most remarkable races in the 2015 election. Could Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old student, beat Labour’s campaign strategist Douglas Alexander?
Spoiler alert: Yes. By quite some margin.
Douglas Alexander held Paisley since a by-election in 1997, increasing his majority every time. But there is no resisting the “Scotpocalypse” – the SNP surge – across Scotland tonight. In the end, his 16,614 majority crumbled and a 26.9% swing to the SNP has given Black a majority of 5,684.
In the two months since [being selected], the contest between Black and Alexander has come to feel symbolic of the trends in Scottish and British politics. The SNP would like us to see it as a duel between a “career politician” and the party’s fresh blood, a young woman fired up by the referendum and ready to challenge a broken system. As James Kelly wrote on the nationalist website Bella Caledonia: “This would arguably be the sweetest moment of election night – Labour’s Sultan of Smugness being humbled by a 20-year-old SNP candidate who has been demonised in the unionist press.”
The MSP for Paisley, the Scottish Nationalist George Adam, tells me: “Douglas Alexander is a major player in Westminster, let’s not kid ourselves. I may find the fact he doesn’t care if it’s Paisley, Penrith or Perth that he represents – I might find that repulsive, but he is a major player.” But the fight for Paisley is also illuminating in other ways. The SNP’s ascendancy is inextricably bound up with opposition to a Tory-led government in Westminster and its austerity policies. Where Ed Miliband sometimes seems to oppose George Osborne half-heartedly, in deference to his cautious English voters in Tory-facing seats, Nicola Sturgeon is free to condemn him utterly. It is hard to overestimate the depth of anti-coalition feeling in Scotland: Ashcroft’s polls found that 75 per cent of respondents said they would definitely not vote Tory at the next election, and 73 per cent said they would not vote Lib Dem.
One other figure from that poll should give us pause: 77 per cent said they would definitely not vote Ukip. With a deeper love for Europe, fewer immigrants and fewer terrifying headlines about migrants, Scotland has not been receptive to the overtures of Nigel Farage’s People’s Army. As we went to press, Ukip had not selected a candidate to fight Paisley and Renfrewshire South, and Ashcroft puts the Tories on just 6 per cent. Here, the solution to the growing poverty and inequality that followed the financial crisis is sought on the populist left rather than the populist right.
With the benefit of hindsight, one of Labour’s problems was the sheer romance of Mhairi Black’s campaign – she is, literally, a fresh face. She was born in 1994 – after Douglas Alexander had already entered politics. For anyone disillusioned with the political system, she is untainted by complicity in previous unpopular decisions or the grinding compromises of government.
In the election campaign, Labour found it hard to resist the sheer organisation might of the SNP: its membership surge and the enthusiasm of its activists.
In the past, Labour could rely on its greater organisational strength and activist base to dominate Scottish politics, but that has changed as SNP membership soared in the wake of the referendum. The nationalist party now claims 105,000 members, with 2,022 joining during the seven-way leaders’ debate on April 2. By contrast, Jim Murphy suggested Scottish Labour had “about 20,000 or so” members in December. (The party claims 190,000 nationwide.)
I suggest to Douglas Alexander over tea in Papamacs deli that he has another disadvantage. The SNP has a compelling narrative for this campaign: at 20, Mhairi Black has become a cipher for a new kind of politics, against which he can be painted as the old, discredited establishment. What is his counter-narrative? How does he see this election? “Renfrewshire needs to get rid of the Conservative government, and get changes that Labour can offer. An end to zero-hours contracts, more nurses for our local hospital, the changes that working people need. The real risk would be to see the Conservatives back in office after me, and not secure the practical changes that people want.”
As Labour’s chief election strategist, Alexander is obviously a professional politician – in both the positive and negative senses of the word. We don’t complain if plumbers or brain surgeons are “professional”, after all – but equally, it’s possible to see how his landmine-tested answers can seem less authentic than the youthful chattiness of his opponent. Unlike Mhairi Black, he pays close attention to what can be said “in front of your tape recorder” – but then he wouldn’t have survived for more than a decade at the top of politics if he put too trust in journalists. Eileen McCartin, the Liberal Democrat candidate who first ran against him in 1997, tells me over the phone: “In a personal sense, he is always a gentleman. Like most Labour politicians, he toes the party line and says what needs to be said for his party.”
There had been suggestions that Black was wild and unprofessional, but the young woman I met was sensible and hard-working. She will face a tough challenge in Westminster – although part of a large SNP bloc, she has only been involved in politics for a short time and has no desire to be a “career politician”.
Still, as the youngest MP since the 1660s, her story will be one to watch.