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17 July 2017

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

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

By Julia Rampen

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”. 

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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.”