Since being unexpectedly elected to the Scottish Parliament, the most common question I’m asked is, ‘are you actually enjoying it?’.
Over the last few weeks two other questions have arisen almost as frequently, ‘who are you backing?’ and ‘why are you backing them?’
So do I enjoy it? Well, sometimes. The opportunity to ask questions and to speak out on issues and for people is a privilege, but in opposition it is a frustration too. The leadership election is, of course, a new experience for me but one which I hope provides an opportunity to rediscover and reshape our vision through debate and new ideas.
The election of a new leader of the whole Scottish Party is a historic and important choice and one which as a voter in the representatives section of our electoral college I will have a bigger say than most of the thousands of other members and trades unionists who will be taking part in this process. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously.
The election of a leader is a difficult process for political parties, we must decide between people who we rate highly and necessarily the candidates must identify dividing lines between themselves and others who they regard as friends as well as colleagues.
Simply picking who you like best is not an option. The only way to make the choice is to return to first principles, the choice must be a political one.
I supported the change in the rules which allows MPs and MEPs to stand, the institution to which the candidates are elected makes no difference to me. I only want to be sure that the candidate I back, gets the scale of the challenge, understands where we, and Scotland, is at and has the work ethic, commitment and most importantly real drive and desire to do the job.
For me that candidate is the mother of two teenage kids on the Southside of Glasgow, my candidate is Johann Lamont.
Johann has a record. Since Johann took her oath, in Gaelic, in the Scottish Parliament back in 1999 she has been a tireless campaigner for equality and for social justice, equally she has been a tireless servant of the Labour Party in Parliament, serving as a committee convener, then a minister and most recently as a loyal Deputy Leader.
Johann likes to remind people, however, that she has still been a grassroots activist for change longer than she has been an elected politician. Speaking to people in the voluntary sector whom Johann has spent so much time supporting and advocating on behalf of, as well as a group of kinship carers I met last week and a group of women members in her own constituency who regard Johann as their friend as well as their MSP, it is clear that Johann has already used the time and opportunity she has been given to the utmost. If Johann was one of the senior people leaving frontline politics at this time, she would already have a career to look back on of which she and the Labour Party could be proud. Yet, at yesterday’s leadership hustings Johann said firmly ‘I want to be Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, I want to be the next Labour First Minister’.
Johann’s political life has already been a journey. Growing up in Anderston and Tiree and her later work as a teacher in Castlemilk encouraged her to believe that social justice, not constitutional change, was what should drive Scottish Labour. Only later did she come to be convinced that politics in Scotland also has a uniquely Scottish dimension. As the campaign for home rule gathered pace she was convinced of the fundamentally transformative power of our own Parliament and is as frustrated as I am by the refusal of the SNP to put devolution to work in favour of their approach of belittling Holyrood and arguing that everything that is wrong in Scotland could be put right by separation.
Johann said on BBC Scotland today that the powers of the Parliament was a debate worth having and that no settlement was ever settled for good but she also made clear that to believe that ‘Devo Max’ could be an option in the fundamentally simple question of what country we want our country to be was a flawed approach to the challenge we face. I agree with Johann.
Johann argued in the first hustings debate that those in our Party who are casting around for a ‘narrative’ are missing the point. Scottish Labour has a story to tell, and a duty to retell it for as long inequality, injustice and unfairness exist. That story is intertwined with the story of our nation much more than the campaigners for narrow nationalism like to admit. Scotland’s hasn’t tired of Labour’s story, any more than it has concluded that the SNP version is definitive. The fault is not down to the electorate outwith central belt Scotland, voters that Labour simply stopped trying to speak to in recent years. Or, to the voters in what some called our heartlands who found our attempts at ‘positioning’ cynical and disconnected from their real lives and their ordinary concerns.
Johann gets this.
Leadership nominations are not down to finding the candidate who we think we can best mould to fit our own ideal. We don’t need a blank canvas, we need a leader.
Johann knows what she thinks on many issues, not through arrogance, but through her method. She looks at Scotland and simply asks who is missing out, how can life be fairer, what can I do to change things and who will join me.
It’s an approach which I hope I share, and it’s why I’m backing Johann to lead Scottish Labour.