Dispatches from the Political Killing Fields…
Here we are, in the brutal political killing fields of North Lanarkshire. Where’s the gunfight? What happened to the Ennio Morricone soundtrack? It’s a quiet Bank Holiday Monday evening. The TV would no doubt be great, repeats of Carry On Films. Unless it’s Celebrity Crucifixion starring Miranda Hart, I’m out of here. The odd exciting shout and cheer meanders through from the Premiership commentary through to the function hall from the bar. Most people are chilling out after a better than expected sunny Easter weekend. Politics or chocolate?
In Blairhill, an area of Coatbridge, there’s a small gathering of around 30 people. It includes activists who have been pounding the streets, leafleting. There are a few businessmen with broadband concerns and infrastructure issues. A stand-up comedian, an optician, a councillor, a bass player, a consultant from Business Scotland. It’s definitely a home crowd. I’m there as I’m curious to see if there are any grounds for optimism. I don’t want the same old rhetoric. We have congregated to listen to Ivan McKee from Business For Scotland and he’s introduced by the SNP candidate for this seat, Phil Boswell.
Before we start, I have to declare I’m cynical, I’m mistrustful. I’m probably at my lowest ebb politically. All the debates thus far have been like watching delusional candidates do a job interview and then leave, all declaring they’ve got the job and claiming victory. The only one who didn’t claim victory was the person who clearly won, Nicola Sturgeon. The TV debates are in effect, a job interview. So would you honestly employ any, apart from Sturgeon (who remember is a MSP) of the other candidates? Are they capable of managing the local tiny Tesco never mind the country? They all seemed insincere, untrustworthy, had a strangeness, they seemed weird, almost idiotic. So there we have my current political perspective. I believe the model is broken and other than seeking succour from the late great George Carlin, I’m looking for a political fix.
Ivan McKee himself is relaxed, measured, remaining calm when delivering the devastating stats, like the 400% rise in food banks and the Tories and Labour signing off on an additional £30 billion in austerity cuts. As he explains the record of the Scottish government, versus the UK’s he remains part university lecturer, part savvy business adviser. He wants to be part of a successful country with a buoyant economy and quite clearly knows how to create one. Why he is talking about it? He should be employed right now to do it.
The local SNP candidate Phil Boswell introduces him. Most think Phil has his work cut out. His rival locally, is Labour stalwart, Tom Clarke. Mr Clarke lives at the bottom of my street. I have never spoken to him, or seen him around, had any representatives from his party at my door in fourteen years. Maybe he’s complacent, thinks it’s a done deal. Phil has spent years working in the oil industry and clearly has come back to his hometown, his own turf with a point to prove and a power point presentation that would blow most people away. But I’ve met and spoken to him more in one evening than I ever have with Tom Clarke.
What I like about Boswell is his pragmatism. There’s quiet ambition but everything is underpinned with a sense of reality. There was none of what I call the cute wee Westie dug politics, no cheek clenching renditions of Runrig. None of that nonsense. This was modern politics, quietly and effectively explained. He’s self-efffacing, with an easy charm, when people meet him they like him and when he speaks knows his business. He and his volunteers have worked relentlessly but more will be needed to beat Tom Clarke. He has been voted in with huge majorities in various local seats since 1982.
This (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) is one of the crucial 15 of 16 marginal seats that Lord Ashcroft claims the SNP will take and could rewrite the balance of power and either destroy the Tories or help hapless Ed attempt to open the door to Number 10. Interestingly, since he (Lord Ashcroft) started presenting such endless possibilities to the SNP, has quickly stopped being that former Tory donor Aschroft, to the more esteemed and enlightened pollster, Lord Ashcroft. The poll released in February centered around more than 16,000 Scottish voters in Labour-held constituencies. The results changed the whole complexion of the general election, showing an incredible 25.4 per cent swing to SNP.
However, the headline story, the biblical mass exodus of defection from Labour to SNP doesn’t chime with the reality. In the Labour heartlands, they are still holding on. When I explain my presence, that there’s an SNP candidate and an esteemed business spokesman next door there’s a unified response. No one, unsurprisingly wanted to be named. ‘They get in; I’m moving out,’ said one, a stylish 40ish woman, a successful accountant and media professional. Opinions in Coatbridge, Chryston& Bellshill didn’t seem to waver. One chap who has been in the bar all day, a teacher, early 50s and has that look, the indoor sunshine- the brewer’s flush, suggests that if the SNP get in, ‘the last man standing switch out the lights’. He was so chuffed with his retort he toddled off without washing his hands no doubt happy to spread the love and the disease while doing a lap of honour.
Having just spoken to those who clearly didn’t like the SNP, throughout the meeting, I felt it was all just too nice and that they needed to toughen up for the battle ahead. Over the weekend, Sturgeon had been forced to categorically deny a leaked story that she had claimed she wanted Cameron to remain as PM. I even prepared a question. I was keen to change the tempo and turn up the temperature. I wanted to know when the gloves would come off and why they were accepting the stock answer, ‘this is an election campaign after all’ as if it was a get out of jail free card? I wanted to know what they thought of Andy Burnham on the Today Show claiming the Labour Party didn’t owe the FM an apology? He claimed ‘there was a very clear report in The Telegraph on Saturday morning based on a memo they’d seen. We can only respond to what people are reporting. This is an election campaign’. So in other words they can say something anything they want, retract it and know that the bad stuff will still stick. I wanted to know how they were going to deal with the powerful machinery of the Tory supporting London media but I couldn’t crowbar the question in, it seemed too violent amid the slick professionalism of Power Point presentations, graphs, facts and figures. The focus was of pragmatism, dealing with the practicalities of a hung parliament. Looking at what would be required to make the best for and fight for Scotland in the heart of the UK government. Like the leaflet I was handed on the way in said ‘More SNP seats (in Westminster) means more influence and power for the people of Scotland.’
As we leave the hall, a familiar face reminds me I was wasting my time. When I asked why, I was told ‘She’s (Nicola Sturgeon) in with the Tories, always knew it. Wants Cameron to win! What more proof do you need?’ I counter that I think that’s now proven to be inaccurate. She didn’t say it. I’m sure there will be worse to come. So even though it may be a small pool of people there is anything but the predicted swathe of groundswell support crossing over to vote SNP.
However, the party can rest assured that out in the constituencies that make up Lord Ashcroft’s killing fields, work is being done, effectively and quietly. It is also inspirational and very impressive. My mind was changed on the subject of fracking for example (I’m now against it- mainly because Boswell’s expertise in the field explained the technical difference between fracking in the North Sea and on land).
Here in the quiet hotel function suite of the Georgian Hotel, Coatbridge, I was surprised. As someone who treats all politics as one part philosophy four parts hypocrisy I would move Ivan McKee to the treasury ASAP and if Phil Boswell has an historic and what will be a hard earned victory over Tom Clarke, look to get him an advisory role or earmark him as a future energy minister.