I might have been the only leftist in Plymouth with a spring in my step the day after the general election. Despite the crushing Tory victory, it was a day of glory for Scotland, which elected an impressive and diverse crop of new SNP MPs; and to my delight, Anne McLaughlin, MP for Glasgow North East, stands foremost among the new class with the biggest swing in the election.
Why so much joy from an American so far away from Scotland? In a former life, I lived in Glasgow, and I worked for Anne when she was a Member of the Scottish Parliament, who came to office as the next on the list when the Scots-Asian pioneer Bashir Ahmad MSP passed away. From Greenock, working-class, bohemian and widely traveled, Anne is an unlikely but gifted politician, ferociously anti-racist, progressive and passionate about Scottish independence. For years, she has been a leading blogger in Scottish politics. In Scottish Parliament she was a tireless, fierce fighter, for her constituents and for campaigns in Glasgow, and a gifted speaker in Holyrood. Anne and her staff fought against Glasgow school closures and to keep refugee families from being detained; and, though she was efficient and competent, Anne never shielded her heart from the hopes and terrors of the people that came to her for help. Anne is also an experienced elections campaigner who has never spared herself the hard work, and when I saw her result – the biggest swing in the UK, a rout in what had been a safe Labour seat – I was delighted, but not surprised.
My husband and I visited Anne at Westminster on Thursday, and she took us out to a terraced members’ café on the Thames with an impressive view of the London Eye. She is just the same as the Anne I knew five years ago, and even in my role as a journalist I could not help but keep an eye on the time, to make sure she wasn’t late for the chamber at eleven. “It’s like SNP conference,” she remarked, as we grabbed a sunny table. She was still getting used to seeing so many of her fellow 55 SNP colleagues here, along with many familiar faces among the staff. Among them are many talented people – along with Anne, highlights of the SNP group include hard-working former SNP Glasgow councillor Alison Thewliss, Mhairi Black, a 21-year-old student and inspiring speaker who toppled Douglas Alexander, and QC Joanna Cherry, who took Alistair Darling’s former seat.
The new SNP class is being portrayed in the press almost as a strange foreign incursion – when I was researching this article, all the English press was abuzz with the Speaker of the House’s rebuke of their applause during SNP group leader Angus Robertson MP’s response to the Queen’s Speech. They wore white roses, all together, that day; already they’re gaining respect for their discipline. But as individuals, the SNP group are still getting to grips with London, looking for housing and finding their way around.
In Parliament, the SNP will face challenges and contradictions on a scale far greater than the London Underground and the maze of Westminster. To begin with, I asked Anne about some of those issues.
During the election, and responding to the Queen’s Speech Wednesday, the SNP positioned itself as a party for Scotland and a party for UK-wide opposition. How hard will it be to balance the aims of combating austerity in Scotland with opposing Tory ravages across the UK?
Our primary aim is to protect the interests of the people of Scotland – we hope a knock-on effect of that will be that we can also work with what we’re calling progressives within this Parliament to support those people in England who are also being hit by cuts, for example. We hope to be proactive – whilst we’re trying to defend the people of Scotland from the cuts, the aim is we’ll also try to do that for the rest of the people of the United Kingdom. There’s not any conflict there.
What is it going to take for Labour to come round and work with the SNP as an effective opposition?
I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was a bit surprised yesterday when one Labour MP stood up and more or less called us Tories and said we did the Tories’ work for them and should join them on their side of the House of Commons. Other than the seats issue, I’ve found people in the Labour Party are quickly realising that we can identify with each other – we can identify with each others’ policies. I feel what happens is they clearly don’t go far enough for us, but when they stand up – for instance, yesterday John McDonnell MP gave a great speech about why you shouldn’t be selling off housing association stock, and about homelessness – there’s not a person in the SNP who wasn’t agreeing with what he was saying, although he is considered to be more left wing than the rest of his party. There’s some of them that are going to be really easy to work with – the mainstream Labour members, I think in time they will come to realise that our positioning is where they used to be, and where they probably feel instinctively most comfortable. I think that all it will take is just a bit of time.
There’s another perceived tension – between the increased devolution that was promised by the Smith Commission and the vast cuts promised, particularly those in the new Employment and Welfare Bill. Will the new powers be enough to protect Scottish people from the Tory cuts?
Yes, in that the SNP Government will use every power that we get to its full potential, but no in that it’s not independence – it’s not the powers needed to make radical changes. So far I think the SNP government has done incredibly well offsetting – in Scotland, if you were due to pay the bedroom tax, the Scottish Government has given councils money to pay that for them, so effectively nobody in Scotland pays the bedroom tax – also we put funding into other welfare funds were we can. But we have no direct power over welfare; I think it was incredibly good that they found money. None of it is enough – people are really suffering and struggling, and nothing we do is going to be able to stop sanctions on benefits, for instance – none of those powers can help us to stop that, although people like myself will absolutely be making a noise about it, because the cuts are obscene. It’s not enough – it’s nowhere near enough, but I’m absolutely certain the SNP Government will use every power that it has as creatively and as effectively as possible. But we have to not lose sight of the end goal which is independence, and we have not to lose sight of the reasons that we want independence – so that we can actually make a significant difference – a radical difference to the country.
Seven Queen’s Speech bills, including, fortunately, the revenant right-to-buy, will bypass the Scots, and 17 will extend to Scotland, including sweeping new monitoring powers, tighter controls on freedom of expression, and of course the EU referendum. How can the SNP best fight these plans?
When it comes to stuff like, for instance, the referendum on the EU – which, I was stunned when Harriet Harman announced that they’ve decided that they don’t oppose it any more. There is absolutely no electoral advantage to them in doing that – not that that would have been an excuse, but the election’s over and they lost, so to back down on that is quite shocking. I think what we’ll be seeing quite strongly – incidentally, led by Nicola [Sturgeon] on this one, is that if any one of the four countries votes against coming out of the EU then they should not be taken out against their will. The problem is that I think that is very likely to happen. I think there’s a very good chance for instance that Scotland will vote to stay in Europe and England could vote to come out, although I wouldn’t be too sure. The one thing as we know that having a referendum does is it opens up debate, and people start to educate themselves. I’m not sure that once people start to understand where we sit in Europe and what our responsibilities and rights are, they won’t change their mind.
There are 56 of us now, so we clearly have some bargaining power, clearly. In the Queen’s Speech, it didn’t sound much like the Tories were minded to take anyone’s opinions into account, to be honest, because as somebody pointed out yesterday, less than twenty five percent of the electorate voted for them, and still they’re pushing ahead with almost all of their bills. Thankfully the Human Rights Act repeal has been dropped, but not for long. That’s a good example. The Tories have got this slim majority, and we know they’ve got a number of backbenchers who oppose the repeal of the Human Rights Act, and they know that we will absolutely oppose it, and the Labour Party will oppose it. We’re formulating strategy at the moment, but in the absence of us coming yet to any conclusions on strategy, what we did was talk to people in all the parties and continue to put pressure on the Tories – and I think it worked. Or, maybe it could be the formidable team of Joanna Cherry, myself, Angela Crawley, Stuart MacDonald and Richard Arkless that made them think, “we’re not fighting this lot!”
Tell us about Glasgow North East. What mandate have they given you, and what do the people who voted for you want to see from you?
It’s one of the poorest constituencies in the whole of these islands – it has a significantly higher proportion of people dependent on welfare benefits than almost anywhere in the UK. A lot of people are struggling with losing their disability benefits or having their benefits sanctioned. I met a couple – the husband didn’t sign on on time, he went the following day, and the reason he didn’t go in as normal was because his wife had been in labour. Any decent human being would not say to their wife, “I have to go and sign on.” He went the next day and their benefits were sanctioned for six weeks – they got nothing for six weeks. They took away their milk tokens and everything, that’s not unusual.
I’ve got an awful lot of people who are having their disability benefits taken away from them. Someone had her benefits taken away and came to me. I said, “You can appeal this,” and she said, “I can’t bear to go through it.” What I promised that I would do is employ someone with welfare rights expertise. That means either somebody who’s already a welfare rights officer, or I will be bringing in somebody who will undergo intensive training, so that people can get welfare rights advice – because all the welfare rights services have been cut! Citizens Advice Bureau is brilliant but I think they’re really struggling to cope with the number of people coming to them. I’ll be speaking to CAB and working in conjunction with them, but I want anybody to be able to come into the office and if they feel they can’t fight their appeal, we will do it for them, we will represent them. That will probably mean mostly my staff going, but if it’s a really big case, I’ll go and do it myself. I’ve done it before and I’m quite good at it!
So I’ve promised that. We also have a lot of community groups that do incredible work – I mean, work for people that actually should be provided already, so they’re sometimes providing a real lifeline for people, and they lose their funding. But a lot of these groups, when they start up, they get funding from Glasgow City Council. They don’t realise that they can get funding from lots of other places, so I’ll be bringing in a funding specialist who will be working a couple of days a week and we’ll work to build the capacity of these organisations, so if they lose funding from one pot, they’ve got a plan and they’ve got other money coming in, and we’ll support them to apply. We’ll do training sessions and help them to plan ahead.
There is a really high instance of suicide, drug addiction and alcohol addiction in the constituency, and very high unemployment rates; the other thing I’ve promised to do is, because all you ever hear about Glasgow North East’s constituent parts, such as Springburn, Possilpark, Milton, areas like that, it’s “there’s a lot of drugs, alcohol, derelict buildings.” There’s also a lot of really good stuff, so every month I’m going to feature a person or a community group in the constituency that’s doing something brilliant. I want to change the reputation of the area so it reflects the people who live in the area. At the moment the reputation only reflects some of the people, and most of the people in bad situations are there not because of their choices, but because of unfortunate circumstances.
Finally, my readers will want to know – what’s your position on sex worker rights?
My position is that all workers should have rights, whatever industry they work in. I would not want to discriminate – whatever someone is doing, they should have equal rights with everyone else. On the full decriminalisation of sex work, I will need to give the issue lots of thought as I’ve not fully considered it before.
After our chat, Anne had to rush to the debating chamber, where Theresa May was scheduled to respond to the Queen’s Speech. Opposition responses to her triumphal litany of the achievements of the Tory Government in policing and immigration was a good opportunity for a foreshadowing of how opposition politics will work in a chamber with two major opposition parties – Labour and the SNP. As Labour and Tories engaged in a point-scoring contest on which party was most censorious of so-called extremist speech and least welcoming to immigrants, SNP MP Angus MacNeill cited the fact that the UK is 11th in Europe for proportion of immigrants, behind countries like Germany; he called the debate “phobic”. Joanna Cherry, a new SNP Edinburgh MP and the SNP justice spokesperson, called on the progressives in the chamber to join the SNP in defending human rights and civil liberties in her maiden speech, with colleagues including Anne sat behind her.
“We would be proud to join other friends among Opposition Members, and possibly among Government Members too, in a progressive alliance of all Members who believe in the Human Rights Act and the value of participation in international instruments such as the ECHR…I urge the House not to indulge in the narrow, inward-looking nationalism of withdrawing from the ECHR and drawing up its own Bill of Rights,” Cherry said.
But just this week we learned that the Government is prepared to unilaterally break with Europe on human rights. Despite the comments that SNP MPs walk around Westminster as if they own the place, it seems that it is the Tories who are drunk on their mandate, ready to disregard tradition, convention, and democracy.