“I’m under no illusion that we have a huge challenge ahead, but I think there’s something to fight for”: Lesley Brennan, Labour candidate for Dundee East, on fighting an election against the Depute Leader of the SNPby Claire Dumbill on Apr 2, 2015 • 9:23 pm No Comments
Dundee East was the closest SNP/ Labour marginal in 2010. Though the margin increased in the favour of the SNP’s Stewart Hosie at the last election, everything looked set to play for — if the referendum returned a No result, which was seen as the ultimate repudiation for the Scottish Nationalists.
Labour candidate Lesley Brennan, though, finds herself on the wrong side of the prevailing winds — to put it mildly. I was tersely informed by a member of the Dundee SNP team that this seat is no longer marginal. And, it seems, all of the indicators aside from last year’s result point to that conclusion.
Brennan is quick to confront the challenges that the constituency presents: “There’s no denying the impact that the referendum has had on general election. I think it’s front and centre for most people here”.
Dundee, the “City of Yes” as it is often termed, was 57% in favour of independence, compared with a 45% national average. In neighbouring Dundee West, currently held by Labour, Lord Ashcroft’s poll records a 27% swing to the SNP. In a seat already held by the SNP — its Depute Leader at that — and in the context of a huge swing to the SNP across Scotland that goes well beyond Yes voters, Labour’s prospects aren’t looking rosy.
As Brennan points out, there is certainly huge appetite for change here. It is this appetite, in some places nebulous, in some highly specific, which is fuelling the SNP surge, and which goes beyond those who voted Yes in the referendum. Brennan clearly believes, though, that it is not just the SNP that can deliver change: their vision is only one of many possibilities.
“For me, how you get that change is not through constitutional change. I think it’s much more about policy, making work pay. Separating from the UK is not the answer to those issues.”
It is true that much of the debate around the referendum, and in particular in the run up to the general election, ended up on the topic of social justice. It was a recurring theme in the SNP teams I spoke to; it’s one which Brennan voices strong views on, too. She brings it to the forefront on the doorstep:
“The policy pledges around young people’s job guarantee, the energy cap, the cost of living crisis, the bankers bonus tax — these are things that don’t just affect people here, but across the rest of the UK.”
She’s skeptical at the suggestion that the SNP have taken the Left ground from Labour on the policy front.
“I think the SNP are being more successful in the media with their presentation. But while they’re able to cast themselves as being Left, they voted against the living wage in the Scottish parliament. Things Labour have put forward, they voted against. In their white paper on independence, one of the main things was cutting corporation tax — not really a left wing policy. And that was one of the main themes of the referendum.”
She continues: “so I don’t know whether the [Scottish] media likes them because they’re the underdog, and because Labour were in power 1997-2010, they’re seen as the new upstart. They have that as a presentation, but it doesn’t bear up to scrutiny.”
An economist by profession, Brennan is also a local councillor. Her politics sit to the Left, and certainly to the Left of New Labour. After we met, she was subsequently in the headlines for refusing a £1000 donation from Tony Blair. There were hints of what was to come in our conversation: she was critical of the Thatcherite legacy that critics of New Labour see as smoothly accommodated by the party under Blair.
“If you look at the polling for nationalising railways, across the board people support it. Even Conservative voters. Economics is an experiment, and the neo-liberalism of the 1970s, maybe it wasn’t such a great experiment. There are so many outside variables you can’t control for.”
“Privatisation didn’t create the competition it was supposed to, it didn’t create better customer service, it didn’t create better prices. So maybe we should say that experiment didn’t work, and bring it back.”
Returning to the topic of the SNP campaign — unavoidable for long — she’s also, unsurprisingly, critical of the blame the party places on the UK for the current state of affairs in Scotland.
“It’s a very easy narrative to say ‘those big bad boys down in London, in Westminster, they really hate you, they’re punishing you”. But when you really scrutinise it, that’s not the reality. Quite a bit of it — the power — actually goes above the nation state, to multinational companies. So how do you hold these companies to account for tax evasion, tax avoidance?”
Many voters who once supported Scottish Labour will be fairly close to Brennan’s economic and social policy stance. While she is critical of the SNP’s record — and the SNP is equally so of Labour’s — she talks the talk when it comes to asserting her distance from the centrist politics that has much of Scotland up in arms.
But, those who disagree with her diagnoses of the Union are unlikely to be swayed by her positions on other issues. This is something Brennan readily admits: “There are people who’ve voted Labour, but if they want independence they won’t vote Labour again. For us, that’s the main issue.”
Still, she remains buoyant — though with reservations. “We’ve spoken to about 6000 people in Dundee East since the referendum. I think it’s pretty fluid. I’m under no illusion that we have a huge challenge ahead, but I think there’s something to fight for.”
For Scottish Labour, it must be difficult to know whether to look forwards or back. While the referendum has revitalised politics here, the paradoxical impression is that the campaign was worse for the victors than it was for the losers.
“The referendum for many people was a very personal experience, and people fell out with families over it. I think that will weigh on people for a long time. I really don’t want to go back to that”
She speaks of particular occasions when she felt the experience was acrimonious, rather than cordial disagreement.
“For my team going out, we took a few weeks off after. We were really quite bruised by the whole experience. Colleagues who have been involved in campaigning for over 40 years said they never experienced anything like it.”
While SNP voters and members speak of the pre-referendum independence movement with misty eyes, it’s clear that many have memories which are less fond. Even recognising the buoyancy and engagement the campaign has brought to Scottish politics, what was a scarring experience for pro-union Labour activists on the ground will now pursue them to the polls.
It would seem churlish to deny the positive effects of the referendum; and Labour was, at the time, on the winning side. But this ambivalence, and the subsequent backlash, leaves candidates in a difficult position. Brennan ends on a note which really sums up the Labour position, if in an understated way:
“So you can say it was great, it did engage a huge amount of people in politics. But…”